Paul Dano’s ‘Wildlife’ Paints a Striking Portrait of a Fractured Family

For his directorial debut, “Wildlife,” actor Paul Dano teamed up with his longtime partner, actress Zoe Kazan, to also co-write the screenplay for the period novel from Richard Ford. Dano and Kazan, who previously co-starred in “Ruby Sparks,” another film written by Kazan, decided to stay strictly behind the camera this time around, leaving Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, along with promising newcomer Ed Oxenbould, to take center stage in this drama that is, despite its title, very slow burning.

Set in 1960, “Wildfire” focuses on a family of three following their move to a small Montana town. Gyllenhaal plays dad Jerry, who early on loses his job as a golf pro for crossing boundaries with with guests. Prideful, he refuses to take his job back after his employer realizes he’s made a mistake, putting his family in an uncomfortable situation, particularly his wife, Jeanette (Mulligan). It’s implied that this is not the first time they have found themselves in this predicament, although little backstory is given, and there is no explanation for their frequent moves. The time period serves to amplify the tension, as Jerry doesn’t want his wife working outside of the home, nor does he want his 14-year-old, Joe (Oxenbould), to put aside football for an after-school gig. They both go ahead and find work anyway, with Jeanette taking a job teaching swim lessons, and Joe finding a creative outlet at a local portrait studio. Jeanette, to her credit, manages to remain upbeat, but unlike most wives of that era, she doesn’t self-medicate to keep herself from going over the edge. Things take a turn, however, after Jerry announces to take a gig fighting wildfires in the mountains, a job that will take him away from his family for a long stretch of time. With Gyllenhaal gone for most of the second act, as Mulligan turns out one of the finest performances of her career.

With Jerry out of the picture, the viewer and Joe get to know Jeanette better. Mother and son come to understand each other better, as Joe becomes Jeanette’s confidente. This causes much awkwardness, as she even overshares details of sex life with Jerry, or lack that of. Things further unravel from there, as Jeanette soon finds herself having an affair with wealthy, older divorced man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp). With Dano at the helm giving her plenty of room, Mulligan delivers a striking performance as a woman in conflict between duty and desire. Joe is similarly conflicted as he struggles to understand his mother. Mulligan and Oxenbould are both superb in the scenes in which Jeanette finds herself baring her soul to her son. As difficult a position she puts her son in, the viewer cannot help but feel an immense amount of sympathy for Jeanette, as Mulligan and Dano have really dug deep to make her unique and multi-dimensional, yet typical of many women who dealt with frustrations in the era of “The Feminine Mystique.”

Wildlife” opens Oct. 19 in select theaters.