Considering what we’ve seen of the actor Paul Dano — in “Little Miss Sunshine,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Love & Mercy,” “Swiss Army Man” and other subtle, sensitive performances — it’s no surprise that his debut as a director, “Wildlife,” is a perfectly measured drama boasting some powerhouse acting.
This adaptation of a Richard Ford novel is set in the 1960s, mostly through the eyes of Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), a 14-year-old growing up in a Montana town with his parents, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). The inequities of the marriage are evident, to us if not to Joe: Jeanette is clearly the sharper half of the couple, but that fact doesn’t benefit her in this pre-feminist era.
Jerry works as a golf pro, but when he suddenly loses that job, he flounders in his efforts to provide for his family. Dead-end salesman jobs are no good, and finally Jerry decides the solution is to sign up for a crew fighting a raging wildfire in the nearby mountains — the smoke cloud of which dominates the skyline and becomes a handy metaphor for the roiling tensions in the marriage.
With Jerry gone with no signs of a fast return, Jeanette must fend for herself and for Joe. She takes a secretarial job, but the real benefit comes when she strikes up a relationship — the contours of which are hidden from Joe — with her boss, Mr. Miller (Bill Camp).
Dana and co-screenwriter (and significant other) Zoe Kazan find a rich vein of emotion in Ford’s novel, and their script is precisely calibrated to reveal only so much of that tension to the audience. The result can sometimes be exasperatingly slow, but there are small payoffs throughout the story, including the gorgeous mountain setting.
Best of all, “Wildlife” gives Mulligan a showcase that she seldom gets, and her quietly devastating performance encapsulates Jeanette’s yearning to be taken seriously and her frustration at a society that doesn’t value her beyond her typing and homemaking skills. There’s heartbreak in every slightest movement or line inflection of Mulligan’s performance here, masking her inner passion like the smoke obscuring the fire at its source.
Opened October 19 in select cities; opens Friday, November 9, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking. Running time: 104 minutes.