"Wildlife," Paul Dano's keenly intelligent and quietly piercing directing debut, is about a marriage that collapses during the fall of 1960. It's a dry season in Great Falls, Mont., and 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Australian actor Ed Oxenbould) watches as his newly unemployed father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), impulsively leaves town to help fight a forest fire raging in the mountains nearby. Dad's departure ignites a different kind of conflagration at home, where Joe's mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), releases years of pent-up dissatisfaction and emerges into a defiant new understanding of herself.
Joe, for his part, is a smart, sensitive kid and a mostly silent onlooker, not participating in the drama of his parents' marital meltdown so much as recording it for our benefit. In this he serves much the same function he did as the narrator of Richard Ford's 1990 novel (skillfully adapted here by Dano and the actress-writer Zoe Kazan, his longtime partner). A viewer conditioned to expect only active, forceful movie protagonists may have some initial trouble adjusting to Joe's passivity, and also to the still but deep-running waters of Oxenbould's performance.
But it is well worth the adjustment. Anyone who can remember the first time they saw their parents as broken, vulnerable individuals, and experienced a sense of powerlessness verging on paralysis, should recognize Joe's plight. His circumstances are especially painful because they seem to materialize out of nowhere, the product of a sudden shift in the emotional weather that — not unlike the fire itself — turns out to have been a long time in the making.
As the story opens, the Brinsons have recently moved to Montana from Idaho, not the first time Jerry has uprooted them on a whim. While we see Mom and Dad being affectionate with each other early on, the cracks begin to appear soon after Jerry loses his job teaching golf at a country club. Jeanette, eager to make the best of things, gets a job as a swim teacher and encourages her husband to take whatever work he can get.
But Jerry, his pride too wounded for him to accept any old job, decides to join the men making their way toward fire country — a poorly paid gig and a reckless act of machismo that becomes the last straw for the long-suffering Jeanette. Meanwhile, Joe, though busy with school and football, good-naturedly supplements their meager income by working part-time at a photographer's studio.
We see Joe carefully taking portraits of his customers, freezing their strained smiles and stilted poses into idealized tableaus of domestic happiness. Dano, while pursuing a deeper, thornier kind of family snapshot, works with a similarly exacting precision. You can sense him methodically framing and reframing his characters and their environs, ensuring that every shift in facial expression and every aspect of Akin McKenzie's Eisenhower-era production design rings true.
Dano's attentiveness subverts a common stereotype about actors-turned-directors, namely that they indulge their performers at the expense of visual style and mise-en-scène, the building blocks of film language. Though it boasts enough scenes to furnish half a dozen decent Oscar clip reels, "Wildlife" disperses its attention evenly between background and foreground.
The camera, wielded by the excellent Mexican cinematographer Diego García ("Cemetery of Splendour," "Neon Bull"), often glimpses the characters from a stately remove, taking the measure of their circumstances and gesturing at unseen, atmospheric forces hovering off-screen. The few scenes set in town feel eerily underpopulated in a way that only deepens the characters' already profound sense of isolation.
If the drama feels somewhat studied — though it would be more accurate to say that it simply feels thought through — it is never airless or constricted. The story maintains a steady emotional pulse alongside its meticulous accrual of details, from the autumnal chill that eventually descends on Great Falls to the stylish shades of red and green that begin to seep into Jeanette's wardrobe.
Joe's father is absent for a long stretch of the picture, and Gyllenhaal makes you feel the weight of his absence. Without trying to clarify, much less redeem, Jerry's crisis of masculinity, he makes him a decent, likable, frustrated and frustrating figure, someone whose good intentions and misguided impulses spring from the same uncertain place.
Jeanette, played by Mulligan in a vividly nuanced, career-best performance, presents an even more ferocious study in emotional confusion. Her patience and optimism flaring into rage and resentment, she stews in her sense of abandonment for a while before boldly embracing her liberation. Before long she has begun seeing a wealthy older divorcé named Warren Miller (Bill Camp, superbly controlled), a cynical and repellent man who can nonetheless offer her a stability she has never known.
What's especially unnerving about this isn't just the scandalous prospect of adultery but the way Jeanette effectively betrays Joe in the process. She neglects her son one moment and directs her fury at him the next, finally bringing him to a painfully awkward dinner with Warren where the ugly truth is dragged into the open. Remarkably, despite his rigorous adherence to Joe's perspective, Dano doesn't forsake Jeanette here or sell her out. He's there to catch her even as she's coming apart.
One could read Jeanette's transformation, coming at the tail end of the '50s, as a violent, symbolic rejection of the conformity, patriarchy and other stifling social attitudes that held sway during that decade. But Mulligan's performance is too specific and too wrenching to be reduced to a mere generational statement. This is her most fully formed role since her performance in another early '60s piece, the British coming-of-age drama "An Education," and in some ways it feels like a rejoinder, perhaps even a corrective. The American suburbia of "Wildlife" promises a different awakening, and an infinitely sadder one.
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles