Jeanette, Jerry, and their son Joe (Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ed Oxenbould) live an idyllic family life in 1960s suburban America. Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel by Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano, and directed by Dano, Wildlife placidly observes this family as it slowly unravels while wildfires rage in the nearby forest.
Wildlife is a gorgeously shot and meticulously acted portrait of a family in turmoil. When Jerry loses his job and Jeanette becomes the breadwinner their traditional family dynamic is disrupted and poor Joe is, like us, forced to simply stand by while the grownups in his life fail to act responsibly. The wildfires that are frequently referenced become an obvious reference for not just the unstoppable destruction heading for this nuclear family but also the slow burning pace of the film as a whole.
Wildlife is an impressively restrained debut. Dano has created an aesthetically pleasing picture and clearly knows when to give his actors space to do what they do best. Mulligan in particular shines here; showing roughly three conflicting emotions with each expression. Somehow the resulting film is slightly less than the sum of its parts however. While formally impressive and a pleasant watch Wildlife is unlikely to stick around once it has been seen; there’s something in the film’s restraint that stopped me getting fully involved.
Liam Neeson leads a criminal gang as they steal a large cash amount from a local rival. Within minutes of the film opening Neeson and friends die in a spectacular showdown with the police that takes their illicit haul down with them. Following his death, Neeson’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself not just losing a husband but inheriting the $2 million debt he incurred by dying mid-heist. After uncovering her late husband’s plans for another, bigger heist Veronica assembles her fellow widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to do what their husbands were too deceased to finish.
If the above sounds less like a Steve McQueen film and more like the plot of a Lynda La Plante series then you’d be right; McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn adapted their screenplay from La Plante’s 1983 ITV series. The action has been moved from England to Chicago but Flynn’s experience in writing twisty thrillers means the criminal nature of the film is left intact. What McQueen has brought to proceedings is a clever focus on racial inequality in North America and cynical white politicians who try to exploit them. This mix of generic crime drama with something more meaningful elevates the script above its genre mates.
As a director McQueen absolutely excels. From the opening sequence of machismo-driven “romantic” moments intercut with the explosive events that lead to our titular widows earning their name, we are treated to a film made by a man with an eye for detail. With a simple pan of his camera McQueen can play with dialogue and make subtle revelations about the nature of his characters. McQueen has brought Widows a long way from early 80s ITV but there are moments when the necessities of plot come barging in and exposition ruins an otherwise prefect composition. It is the more traditional elements of Widows that holds it back from being a McQueen classic but equally I can see it becoming a modern crime staple.
Viola Davis is an absolute star in the lead role. She holds the film together through her steely determination as she plays a woman who is both strong and falling apart internally. Outside of the widows are a large cast of fine actors keeping the surrounding plot rolling on while Davis, Rodriquez, and Debicki give us our reason to keep caring.