In “Wildlife,” actor Paul Dano makes one hell of an assured directorial debut.
Dano adapted the film, with his partner Zoe Kazan, from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name. And there’s not a frame of it that’s not beautifully composed and not a line reading that rings false.
How thoroughly you’re captivated by this story will, of course, vary viewer to viewer. (I had a little trouble connecting to much of it.) But it leaves no question to Dano’s filmmaking talents. The guy should keep making movies.
Set in 1960s Montana, “Wildlife” follows a family going through a bit of rough patch. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an ex-golf pro who has just been fired from his job at a country club. To pay the bills, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) picks up some work as a swimming instructor. Their smart, sensitive teenage son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), watches helplessly as domestic tensions boil over into conflict.
Jerry, feeling dejected and emasculated, mulls over joining a crew of men fighting a nearby forest fire. Jeanette, fed up with Jerry’s whims, begins looking into other means of survival. Neither is paying much attention to what Joe wants or needs.
“Wildlife” is a quiet and frequently haunting drama about the trauma families can inflict on each other without really meaning to. Jerry and Jeanette are one of those couples who should never have had children, as they’re so incapable of putting someone else’s needs ahead of their own.
Two things immediately come to the forefront of “Wildlife.”
1. The cinematography and production design. This is the best-shot movie I’ve seen this year, with Dano and director of photography Diego Garcia (“Cemetery of Splendor”) composing calm, austere tableaus of post-war American life, courtesy of production designer Akin McKenzie.
2. The acting. Gyllenhaal does phenomenal work as the flailing father, and Ed Oxenbould is a remarkably self-possessed actor for someone so young. But this is, without question, Mulligan’s show.
Her character begins as a rock-solid-supportive housewife who gradually allows herself to become more erratic and enraged, as her husband continues to let her down again and again. Mulligan, in turn, gets to be sympathetic and monstrous, playful and devastating.
It’s a high wire-act performance in the service of a complex, at times baffling character. And it should earn Mulligan her second Oscar nomination.
It’s telling that a movie with such great performances was directed by an actor.