Another year, another indie actor making another directorial debut, another wannabe Wes Anderson. Poor Paul Dano - he's done it to himself. In truth, Wildlife isn't all that bad - in truth, it's actually pretty good, but if Dano is to carve out a real niche for himself as a director (having already done so with some success as an actor), he's going to have to work on developing his artistic voice beyond the banal competence he displays here.
That's unnecessarily cruel, though. Wildlife is meant to be a bit banal, and if Dano's decision to adapt from an existing source for his first directorial project reigns in his capacity for idiosyncratic expression, it at least spares his audience the trials of enduring another puffed-up piece of creative masturbation, as his actor-to-director peers have lately been so fond of turning out. The excesses to which Dano does not go would be most inappropriate in this context anyway, and his restraint is thus entirely welcome. At each potential tipping point, the visage of melodrama lurking just around the corner, the story, from Richard Ford's novel, applies the brakes and retreats back into itself, adding depth rather than breadth. Dano and Zoe Kazan adapt Ford's dialogue in the same spirit, employing a quasi-Bergmanian approach to withholding certain emotional details; so much is revealed both in what is said and in what is not, and so much is concealed in that same process, the act of concealment itself an act of revealing.
Everything in Wildlife seems to sink inward, to cloister itself among the Montana mountains, to bury its trauma within a broken family unit. Figures are captured in isolating close-ups, the reveal of their spatial positions or the focus of their attention delayed. Dano wraps these figures in oppressive, emotive colour palettes and physical surroundings specific to each, and builds detail upon detail, never moving outward nor forward for relief nor growth. Deeply expressive performances imbue these techniques with purpose and resonance, whether informing or reflecting Dano's creative choices.
Primarily, Wildlife has the timbre of an objective, inconclusive commentary on both how and why two different American generations developed as they did, with a keen understanding of their circumstances, keen enough to resolve none of the issues at hand for either. A different generation on a different continent is examined in one singular example in Ursula Meier's Diary of My Mind, an excoriating portrait of a family break-up of a completely different variety - in Wildlife, it was the parents destroying their children, where here it is the opposite, and the destruction is far more literal, if not any less theoretical. Meier's work, in both style and content, can be summed up in one word, a summarization that I hope is as simultaneously vague and succinct as the director's approach to filmmaking: incisive. The film is like a short, violent dip into a freezing cold shower, and you're never quite certain it's done you any good.
Here, too, is a portrait of mundanity, blown apart by trauma yet resilient in the social structures that uphold those communal values that purportedly serve everyone, yet never truly reward anyone. Meier is a quintessential Central European auteur in her examination - and exaltation - of humanism in the face of apparent inhumanity. In Diary of My Mind, she explores it in lost and faulty connections, noting its absence in certain spaces where one might expect it to flourish, and tracing that very flourishing of humanity in spaces that seem to deny it all potential to take root. There's little to no comfort here, whether in the film's aesthetic of cold whites and greys punctuated by graphic warm tones in primary colours that never genuinely look right, or in Meier's method of cutting sharply from one image to another in dislocation with the soundtrack - she exploits the audience's tacit understanding of messages communicated through minor ellipses, not so much pulling the rug out from under us as abruptly forcing us to realise that the rug was never even there. It's a cold, hard, concrete floor on which she builds a portrait of compassion, and a stern though somewhat ambiguous reproachment of those lacking in it.
One might forget, observing a filmmaker so in control of her craft, that Meier's no veteran either - this only her third feature, with Dano on his first. Both share stringent insight into the human psyche, and an awareness of the tools offered by the medium of cinema to explore and present this insight. The BFI London Film Festival runs from the 10th to the 21st of October; Wildlife is competing for the Sutherland Award in the First Feature Competition.