The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano reveals a filmmaking talent of remarkable intelligence and restraint. Adapted by Dano and Zoe Kazan from the novel by Richard Ford, this meticulously crafted portrait of the American nuclear family in crisis charts the rift that forms within a 1960s Montana household when the father and breadwinner (Jake Gyllenhaal) abruptly departs to fight the forest fires raging nearby, leaving his restless wife (Carey Mulligan, in a performance of fearless emotional honesty) and teenage son (Ed Oxenbould) to pick up the pieces. A deeply human look at a woman’s wayward journey toward self-fulfillment in the pre-women’s-liberation era and a sensitively observed, child’s-eye coming-of-age tale, Wildlife poignantly illuminates the complex ways in which families function, fall apart, and find their way.
Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife receives a Blu-ray edition from Criterion, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on dual-layer disc. The picture has been encoded at 1080p/24hz.
Wildlife was filmed digitally (probably in 2K) so the final presentation will come down to quality of the image in the digital file and how well it has been encoded here, and on both fronts the picture looks very good. Some low-lit shots can look a bit muddy but outside of that I thought the picture looked outstanding. It’s sharp and clear, with gorgeous colours that manage to rich reds and oranges, salong with some striking greens. Outside of some of those muddy looking shots black levels are impressive on the whole, looking rich and deep while still delivering shadow detail.
Since it was shot on digital there are no source issues to speak of like scratches or dirt, and I didn’t detect any digital problems. It’s very clean and photographic overall.
The film comes with a fairly subtle 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue and music are clean and clear, with superb range. The music spreads through the surround environment in an effective manner. Movement between speakers is also natural and clean. It also manages to have a couple of stand out moments, like a scene around a wildfire, where the environment places you in the middle of the cracks and roar. Very effective.
This title is a bit of a surprise and seemed a bit out of left field, but much to my surprise Criterion has pulled together a small but effective collection of supplementary material. First is From Script to Screen, a 25-minute feature covering the development of the film and its production, featuring interviews with director Dano, screenwriter Zoe Kazan, and actors Care Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. I was surprised to learn the film had technically been in development for a long while (after Dano originally read the novel), though more because Dano and Kazan were really taking their time to get it right, along with Dano just being unfamiliar with certain aspects of scriptwriting and filmmaking (Kazan had to really help him with structuring the script, saying Dano’s initial attempt “needed work”). Casting sounds to have been relatively painless, making it sound as though it was just a matter of asking, for example, Dano simply asked Gyllenhaal to be in the film while the two filmed Prisoners. The four participants (all filmed separately) then talk about the actual filming, how Dano worked as a director (it sounds as though he was more focused on technical matters), and then recalling its release, Mulligan a little disappointed around the questions she was asked around her character during a Q&A (which is sadly not a supplement here). Outtakes also appear here.
To my surprise, the backstory of the production proved very interesting and Dano and Kazan talk in great length about getting the structure of the film just right. Those details are expanded upon during the next few features around the film’s production and postproduction period and properly creating that appears in the film. For postproduction, Dano, editor Matthew Hannam, and composer David Long explain in a great amount of detail the work and planning that went into everything, from Dano keeping copious notes around dailies to quickly reference them to doing multiple edits for scenes to find the best way to play it out, and getting the score just right. Dano also explains what attracted him to hiring Long for the score, and Long explains the thought process that went into writing it, based on what Dano wanted. Interestingly, Dano realized quite a bit of it wouldn’t work and it wasn’t until he heard it with the film that it wasn’t what he wanted, which led to him not using a lot of it and then using cues in different places. There are also some deleted and alternate sequences to show the thought process that went into constructing the film.
For the look of the film, production designer Akin McKenzie, costume designer Amanda Ford, and cinematographer Diego García (who may have been added last minute and is doing his portion over a video conferencing tool) explain the influences and research that went into getting the look of the film just right, all of which was limited by the film’s very small budget. But the level of thought that went into every detail of this film is surprising, even right down to just about every detail of the green dress Mulligan wears during one sequence of the film. This feature runs about 16-minutes.
The disc then closes with a 45-minute conversation between Dano and author Richard Ford, filmed at the Lincoln Center in New York in 2018 in front of an audience. Ford takes up a bulk of the allotted time, but there is discussion about the novel’s origins, the choices Ford made for it and the characters within it, the choices Dano made for his adaptation, and why some things (including some key details) were changed for it, with some of it just coming down to it probably not translating well to film. It’s another strong feature detailing how Dano thought through the development of the film, with the added bonus of getting more details about the source novel.
Things close off with an essay by Mark Harris, admiring Dano’s take on the novel and how he has chosen to structure the story. Unfortunately, there is no other academic addition, but I was still pretty fascinated by the material here, which really goes out of its way to explain the creative process behind the film during every step of the film’s production.
A low-key film that I’m a bit surprised to see Criterion go after, but they’ve put together a really solid little edition for it, delivering a wonderful A/V presentation and a small but fascinating set of features.