Here is a film with beautifully calibrated performances, distinctive, period-piece cinematography and meticulously crafted, authentic production design.
Here is a film with much to recommend — and yet the screenplay is just a little too uneven, and from time to time there’s an unsettling creepiness and change in tone that seems inconsistent and manufactured, and I was left underwhelmed.
Adapted from the 1990 novel by the gifted Richard Ford, “Wildlife” marks the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano (who co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Kazan). Dano, who specializes in playing disturbing characters in films such as “There Will Be Blood” and “Prisoners,” has a good eye and a fine sense of pacing — but every once in a while, he stages a scene as if we’re suddenly in a movie about a serial killer, as opposed to an intense domestic drama. Strange.
Set in the sparsely populated, starkly beautiful town of Great Falls, Montana, in 1960, “Wildlife” is a restrained, dour, mostly studious examination of a nuclear family torn apart when both parents put their needs ahead of their son.
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Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is a proud man who is fired from his job as a country club golf pro — and refuses to return when the club managers say they’ve made a mistake and they want him back. I’m not going to work for people like that, says Jerry, who sinks ever deeper into his pity party, downing beers and paying little attention to his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and his worshipful 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould, who looks a little bit like a young Paul Dano).
With wildfires raging in the nearby foothills, Jerry impulsively takes a low-paying, high-risk job fighting the fires — which will take him away from the family for several weeks. How convenient for Jerry.
Not entirely convinced Jerry is ever returning and acutely aware she won’t be able to take care of herself and Joe on her own, Jeanette wastes little time stepping out with the older, well-to-do Warren (the great character actor Bill Camp).
As if to assuage her guilt, Jeanette practically forces Joe to be a participant in her liaison with Warren. The first time Warren kisses Jeanette, it’s at his house, in front of Joe. Jeanette feigns shock, hurries out of the house with Joe — and then goes back inside, leaving her son in the car as the lights dim.
Joe is just a kid and we sympathize with his plight, but there are times when he slinks about, spying on his mother, that seem to imply HE’S the most troubled member of the family, suddenly and jarringly giving “Wildlife” the tone of a prequel about a character who will grow up to do very bad things.
Carey Mulligan is terrific, even when the script calls for Jeanette to make a quick, not entirely plausible transition from a repressed housewife from the Eisenhower era into a diva from an overwrought B-movie. It’s a great performance in an almost-good movie.
IFC Films presents a film directed by Paul Dano and written by Dano and Zoe Kazan, based on the novel by Richard Ford. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking). Running time: 104 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.