That Paul Dano the director suffuses nearly every frame of his first feature “Wildlife” with an almost stricken concern for its imploding protagonists — with scenes of frozen but engaged compassion — somehow befits a movie made by Paul Dano the actor, who over a handful of performances (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Love and Mercy”) has made a notable career out of embodying lonely, vulnerable souls at pains with how to move forward.
“Wildlife,” an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, is a study in domestic discontent set in Montana in the early 1960s, and it makes for a sterling filmmaking debut from Dano. Working from a screenplay he wrote with partner Zoe Kazan, he shows not just a keen way with actors — a commonly informed plus when a performer steps behind the camera, in this case facilitating Carey Mulligan’s finest film portrayal to date — but also an alert eye for deceptively charged visuals that combine surface beauty and nagging emptiness.
Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Mulligan) are clean-cut suburbanites eking out a middle-class life in Great Falls: he as a charismatic golf pro, she as a dutiful housewife. Their 14-year-old, Joe (Ed Oxenbould, “Better Watch Out”), is studious and kind, admiring of his parents, even if he grasps that dad’s fervent wish that he become a football star isn’t likely to pan out. Off in the mountainous distance, runaway fires threaten, but as a female classmate mentions to Joe while he scribbles away during a safety presentation, “You don’t have to take notes. It’s the same as the bomb drill; if the fire ever gets to us, it’ll be too late.”
As if on cue, the lit fuse that imperils Joe’s family occurs when easygoing Jerry is fired from the golf course, sending him into a tailspin of wounded pride, humiliation, and disengagement. Jeanette, driven by a poised practicality, starts teaching swimming lessons to bring in income. Joe, meanwhile, who also pitches in by getting an afternoon job, senses the shell of their home’s existence cracking (mom’s ever-brittler voice, fights heard through the walls, a late-night glimpse of a couch made up like a bed).
When Jerry decides to join the fight against the raging fires — a gig typically handed to the town’s drifters, and one that will keep him away until the first snowfall — an exasperated Jeanette takes it as an abdication, to the extent that she doesn’t feel the need to tamp down her dissatisfaction any longer. In Jerry’s absence, she changes her look, talks more frankly with Joe about personal matters, and, shockingly, begins openly flirting with a well-to-do businessman (Bill Camp, great as always). Joe can only watch, horrified.
Dano’s stitching of this elegantly crumbling story is exemplary, marked by a sense of gathering darkness that never tips into obvious melodrama, or an over-reliance on the tale’s many symbols. He knows how to portend with shots that tug at ideas without needing to spell out the disaster: for instance, an early, pre-fracture montage made up of Jeanette riding her bike, Jerry driving the family car, and Joe riding the bus, in which each character is facing a different direction.
Dano’s confident framing is helped greatly by cinematographer Diego Garcia, who has worked with master imagemakers Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas, and finds plenty of crisply foreboding atmosphere in those Big Sky country vistas and the judiciously deployed period suburban details.
But what really crackles as “Wildlife” goes from family drama to a beholden kid’s nightmare is Mulligan, who in one sense takes the baton from Gyllenhaal’s figurative, then literal, disappearing act of a dad portrayal, then runs away with a performance of seething resentment, fumbling identity, and queasy mom-inappropriateness that feels like a Betty Friedan-conjured tornado of mid-century female anguish. Thankfully free of the kind of prestige showcase movie that usually only required her to be youthful, smart, and porcelain-pretty, Mulligan here is someone gloriously lived-in, acidic and vulnerable; may her Jeanette be the springboard to the deep, womanly roles she deserves.
It’s also the kind of turn you can see in the eyes of Oxenbould, who nails Joe’s heartbreaking reaction shots: When he looks at her, it’s as if he’s watching a beloved, familiar portrait painting cut up and reformed into a Cubist head-scratcher.
Just as impressive is how “Wildlife” resolves itself, with a glimmer of something that isn’t quite hope, but isn’t despair, either, regarding the resilience of certain bonds. By the end, it’s easy to imagine how a less-exacting filmmaker might have coasted on our comfortably smug distaste for the era’s gender restrictiveness, and created something more arch and safely judgmental. But that isn’t “Wildlife,” which in the hands of its filmmakers and cast is a rivetingly good, human journey, full of sparks, flame, smoke, containment, ash, and the terrible beauty that sometimes mystifyingly colors stories of desolation.