As an actor, Paul Dano, with his long-faced gaze of inquiring gloom, has always radiated a sense of unease. That’s far from the only thing he communicates (he was spectacular as Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy,” a performance that beautifully merged Wilson’s disturbance and his joy). But a kind of hushed foreboding remains the vintage Dano mood, and “Wildlife,” his directorial debut, is suffused with it.
The movie, adapted from a novel by Richard Ford, takes place in 1960 in the small town of Great Falls, Montana (the setting for several other Ford tales), and Dano instantly establishes his command as a filmmaker by re-creating the period with an authenticity that’s scrupulous enough to seem downright exotic. The desks in the school, the stacks and stacks of cans in the supermarket, the clunky way the channel changer works on the TV set — and, above all, the calm that hovers on the edge of desolation: The movie is exacting enough to transport you back in time.
Dano, it’s immediately clear, is a natural-born filmmaker, with an eye for elegant spare compositions that refrain from being too showy; they rarely get in the way of the story he’s telling. The tale itself is resonant and absorbing, though in a highly deliberate way. It’s about the energies that were bubbling up from the underbelly of the late ’50s, and how they began to eat away at that clean cautious surface. There are four main characters in “Wildlife,” and three of them are a family: Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), a sensitive and owlish 14-year-old, and his parents, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose marriage has become a nexus of unstated tension.
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The Brinsons rent a plain brick house in Great Falls, where Jerry works on a golf course — but in the film’s opening minutes, he gets fired (for being inappropriately friendly to the customers), and there’s something off in his reaction to the setback. Jerry is a man who likes his beer, and though we never see him flat-out drunk, Gyllenhaal gives him the self-pitying short fuse of an alcoholic; he’s like a Don Draper who never made it to the city. Jerry blames everyone else for his problems, and he has too much misplaced pride to even take his job back when it’s offered to him. The family has moved several times, due mostly to his penchant for unsteady employment.
No wonder Jeanette is frustrated. At first, she seems like the stable one, holding the family together, even offering to go back to work. Her slightly caustic take-charge demeanor marks her as a ’50s housewife who knows it’s her hidden task to keep her family on course, and she’s starting to resent it. So when Jerry suddenly announces that he’s going to join most of the other men of Great Falls to fight a raging wildfire in the nearby mountains, a risky mission that barely pays, something in her snaps.
“Wildlife,” which is mostly about what happens during the period of Jerry’s absence, is told from young Joe’s point-of-view. That means that we’re watching adults act out their confused emotions with the added furtive ripple of an adolescent’s-eye mystery. You can see why Dano, who wrote the screenplay with his partner, Zoe Kazan (who’s the film’s executive producer), was attracted to this material. Joe, played by the young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould as an observer who sometimes slips into being a voyeur, is a very Dano-ish character: hushed, wary, pensive, saddened, resilient. There’s no precedent in his life for anything he’s seeing, and that’s the film’s quiet charge. The audience is going through it right along with him.
Jeanette has taken a part-time job as a swimming instructor, and it’s there that she meets Mr. Miller (Bill Camp), a local auto-shop magnate who cuts a rather unattractive figure — he’s all portly sweaty bluster, he’s divorced, and he looks at life with a lewd gleam — but coming on the heels of Jerry’s uptight anger, his presence is something of a balm. At least, it is to Jeanette. She has him over and flirts with him, then accepts his invitation to dinner, dragging Joe along with her. Dano makes you feel the sordidness, the whiff of scandal that was still there in a one-night stand in 1960. But mostly, he attunes you to what’s going on in Jeanette.
She knows that she needs a man to take care of her, so she convinces herself, just maybe, that she’s attracted to this one. Mostly, though, Jeanette has no idea what she wants. She just knows what she doesn’t want — and there is no clear escape from it.
“Wildlife” is set three years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” and Jeanette is the living, raging, yearning incarnation of the feminine mystique. She’s a woman who wants more, and is suffocating, with no place to go. The film’s central episode is the boozy dinner at Mr. Miller’s house, and Mulligan gives a bravura performance. She makes Jeanette sexy but unstable, full of inchoate anger, the emotions leaking out of her like lava because she can’t hold them in anymore. Yet by giving into them, she betrays her son. She forgets about him, even though he’s standing right in front of her.
Dano handles all this material impressively, yet in the end there’s no denying that there’s something a little studied about “Wildlife.” It goes back to Richard Ford’s writing, which is suggestive and metaphorical in an amorphous way. (It’s like Raymond Carver with a deliberately blurred lens.) Dano has altered some of the novel, and focused the movie into the tale of how this family, coming apart at the seams, embodies the ways that the culture had to change. In its way, it’s a feminist movie — and it’s also a coming-of-age tale. But those usually end on a note of uplift. Seen with Paul Dano’s gaze, coming of age is a highly tentative deliverance that only makes you wonder, with a touch of dread, what’s coming next.