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Actor Paul Dano Steps Behind The Camera In 'Wildlife'


Actor Paul Dano tends to play sad-eyed characters onscreen. He was a mute teenager in "Little Miss Sunshine." He played a pair of ferocious babyface twins in the Western "There Will Be Blood." But for his latest film, Dano has taken on a whole new role - director and co-writer. Critic Bob Mondello says he doesn't have to be onscreen for "Wildlife" to feel like a Paul Dano film.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Great Falls, Mont., 1960 - a family trying to get a toehold on the American dream. Jerry tends the local golf course and does everything he can to ingratiate himself, even buffing members' shoes...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Gentlemen...

MONDELLO: ...As they sip beers.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I hope Jerry's treating you well.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, he's a good one. I went ahead and booked a lesson for tomorrow after he damn near fleeced the pants off of us.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) Oh, no, no, you gentlemen were just buttering me up for next time (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Not supposed to wager with our guests, Jerry.

MONDELLO: Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Jerry thinks of himself as personable. Others would say to a fault. Later that day, he's giving his 14-year-old son advice on making friends...


GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) Ask them personal questions. People love to talk about themselves.

MONDELLO: ...When his boss approaches on a putting green.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Jerry, I'd like a word with you.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) That's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Give us a minute, son.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) Oh, could it wait till tomorrow? I have to get him back home for dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) This won't take long.

MONDELLO: The tone of voice tells Jerry what's coming. He steps off-screen as the camera stays fixed on his son's face. We don't see or hear Jerry getting fired. We see Joe's eyes dim. On the drive home, Jerry worries aloud about what he'll tell Jeanette. But his wife surprises him.


CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) That man is a damn fool. How is he ever going to find a better man for that job?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) You're not angry.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) No, not at you anyway.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) I'll find something better.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) You're right. This is an opportunity in disguise.

MONDELLO: Actress Carey Mulligan makes Jeanette a supportive spouse, as that term was understood in the 1960s. Still, the family starts coming apart - Jerry sinking into self-pity, sleeping on the couch, Jeanette getting work at the Y, Joe in a photo shop. After a few weeks, Jerry infuriates his wife by signing up to fight forest fires for a dollar an hour.


MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Can't keep running every time something...

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) All right.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) ...Doesn't go your way.

MONDELLO: When he leaves to fight the fire, things change. The next morning, Joe awakens to find his mother not distraught but taking charge.


MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) We might have to move to a smaller place. Would you mind that?

ED OXENBOULD: (As Joe Brinson) Well, have you talked with dad about it?

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) This fire could go on for a long time. I have to be smart about things.

MONDELLO: Mulligan is riveting as Jeanette asserts herself. Where Jerry tried to be ingratiating, Jeanette is actively seductive, donning a chartreuse dress that makes her look like a beauty pageant winner to go after a rich guy...


MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Warren, you'll have to dance with me.

MONDELLO: ...Or driving through breathtaking Montana wilderness to show Joe the wildfire that she says is more important to his father than they are.


MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Get out there. See what it feels like.

MONDELLO: As he did with Jerry's firing, director Paul Dano shows us the flames at first in Joe's eyes, teen actor Ed Oxenbould unflinching for long moments. Only after the car is headed homeward does Dano let us see the blaze, its fury consuming an entire mountainside. The script that he and Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford's novel does something similar in an emotional sense. It keeps coming back to Joe as his parents' marriage goes up in flames, the camera capturing the three of them singed and smarting as the boy struggles to make sense of things. In that sense, "Wildlife's" portrait of family life is much like the director's many onscreen performances - understated, sad-eyed, deeply affecting. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.