Paul Dano extends the empathy and sensitivity he’s demonstrated as an actor in films like “Love & Mercy” and “Let There Be Blood” to the other side of the camera in “Wildlife,” his directorial debut. Centering on a family in crisis, the film, while small and contained, contains remarkable performances and simmers with feeling.
Written by Dano and partner Zoe Kazan and adapted from the Richard Ford novel, the movie is a coming-of-age tale and a pre-feminist woman’s self-discovery journey. It is also, as seen through the eyes of its teenage protagonist as he watches his parents’ marriage collapse, a bit of a horror story.
It transpires in early-1960s Montana. Near the Canadian border, a wildfire rages. In the cozy home of housewife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), golf pro Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), a burning unease is about to take hold.
The shake-up begins when Jerry, who has an unstable employment history, loses his golf-course job. Angry, he rejects his boss’ offer to hire him back.
Worried about money, Jeanette begins working part-time, teaching swimming classes. Joe gets an after-school job at a photography studio specializing in portraits — happy moments frozen in time.
When Jerry joins a fire brigade and heads toward the mountains to fight the conflagration — low-paying work that will keep him away for a lengthy spell — Jeanette, feeling abandoned, snaps.
She starts dressing differently. Her tone becomes caustic. She begins talking to Joe in un-motherlike ways.
Most shockingly, Jeanette gets involved with the wealthy, older Warren Miller (Bill Camp), whom she deems a ticket out of her struggle. The relationship intensifies at Miller’s house during a tipsy dinner. Soon, the two are conducting an affair practically under Joe’s nose.
When Jerry returns, further tremors occur. Joe wonders what will happen to the family.
While a larger-scale drama would have likely made a richer impact, Dano has created a marvelous little movie about the love that exists within families. He and Kazan also address class divides, disillusionment, male pride and mid-20th-century female outrage.
Keeping plot strands to a minimum and the camera relatively still, Dano focuses on character and feeling. His cast members receive the space and attention they need to make their characters three-dimensional and compelling.
While Gyllenhaal delivers powerfully in the role of the self-disappointed Jerry, it is Mulligan’s Jeanette, combining tenderness, practicality and fireworks, who takes things to truly spectacular places. Jeanette won’t win any parenting awards, but, as messes go, she’s fascinating. Her every gesture suggests agitation. Despite her substantial mistakes, she earns our compassion.
Camp contributes terrific supporting work in the role of Miller, another wonderfully complicated character.
Oxenbould, whose face registers Joe’s impressions of the family ordeal so effectively that we experience it along with him, is a find. The final scene, in which Joe finds a way to unite ideals and realities, thoroughly shines.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp
Written by: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
Directed by: Paul Dano
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes