Uncompromising emotional realism bolstered by a strong central cast lends Paul Dano's directorial debut a level of dramatic weight uncommon in small films about big themes.

Overt physical brutality is all too common in contemporary cinema, but existential dread of the subtler emotional variety has become considerably rarer. Writer/director Paul Dano has delivered exactly that with his unexpectedly gut-wrenching feature debut, Wildlife, a meditation on the emotional insecurities inherent to the midcentury American familial ideal. Along with co-writer Zoe Kazan, Dano probes the cracked facade and frayed edges of the Leave It to Beaver-era domestic mythos and finds an unrelentingly affective core of ineptitude and misguided good intentions that packs a downbeat wallop that will follow you out of the theater. The picket fence dream of the Cleavers may be nowhere in sight, but there’s plenty of emotional cleaving going on.

Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, Wildlife delves into the psychological complexities of a small nuclear family trying to keep up appearances in 1960 Montana. When dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job as a golf pro for showing the audacity to think he’s on equal footing with his wealthy clients, his confidence is shaken — leaving mom Jeanette (Carrey Mulligan) and 14-year-old son Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould) to pick up the financial slack. Unable to bear the emasculation of seeing his wife and son win the bread, Jerry rejects his boss’s offer to return to work and instead takes off to fight a raging forest fire, leaving Jeanette and Joe to fend for themselves. It’s a simple setup as far as such things go, but the depths it plumbs are often shockingly bleak.

The thematic spine of Dano and Kazan’s narrative is Joe’s struggle to hold his family together, even as dad’s immaturity and mom’s ruthless pragmatism push them toward an inevitable schism. Joe’s ineffectuality in the face of impending crisis is heartbreakingly relatable, and Oxenboud sells his character’s internal conflict with admirable understatement. But Mulligan is the real star of the show here, and her performance is enthralling. As she considers a catastrophic moral compromise that will inexorably rend her home asunder, we’re forced into empathy with her even as we want to scream into the projector for her to think again.

While many actors who step behind the camera seem incapable of giving up the spotlight, Dano bears no such egregious egotism. His composition and camera movements are tastefully restrained, taking on an impassive prescience that hauntingly follows his subjects with a cold detachment — but that goes right out the window when he hits the story’s strongest emotional beats, meaning his detachment never devolves into disengagement. Though I’ve always appreciated Dano as a slightly off-kilter actor, the strong visual acumen he displays here leaves me looking forward to his next project in the director’s chair.

Now, I will say this — while I’m giving Wildlife an unequivocal recommendation, be forewarned that it is about as far from the feel-good family holiday hit of the season as a film can get. While there is a quasi-cathartic epilogue, those expecting a saccharine happy ending are thoroughly out of luck. But if you’re the type of moviegoer who prefers psychological complexity, solid character development and believable outcomes over pat platitudes, Wildlife delivers one of the most thoughtfully structured melodramas of the year. It may not be particularly wild, but its depiction of life is all too painfully on point. 

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