By Chris Nashawaty
October 16, 2018 at 05:51 PM EDT
Credit: IFC Films

Paul Dano has been one of our most interesting actors for a while now. He may not be a quote-unquote movie star or even a household name, but few of his peers seem to do as much with as little as he does. His strong suit is subtle restraint – not the sort that fades from your memory after the end credits roll, but rather the kind that grows and builds over time. That’s a rare breed of talent, and it’s the same understated magic he brings to his quietly powerful directorial debut in Wildlife.

Based on the 1990 Richard Ford novel of the same name, Dano’s film (which he co-wrote with his partner, actress Zoe Kazan) possesses a heartbreaking depth and a rich, layered texture beneath its somewhat conventional ‘60s surface. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan as a married couple whose relationship is slowly unraveling at the seams – not through any one seismic event, but through inertia and some unarticulated spiritual malaise. Caught in the middle is their 14-year-old son Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould), a quiet loner with the sort of sad eyes that seem to be searching for answers to life’s mysteries only to find none. And it’s through those helpless, questioning eyes that we see the story unfold.

Shortly after unrooting his family and relocating to small-town Montana to take a job as a golf pro, Gyllenhaal’s Jerry gets fired because he doesn’t take work seriously enough. He doesn’t seem to take anything very seriously at all. He still seems to be a kid himself – someone who one day woke up with a wife and kid, but is still deep-down a wandering spirit who hasn’t figured himself out yet. Like Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong in First Man or Jon Hamm’s Don Draper in Mad Men, Jerry is a bottled-up emblem of stoic masculinity. The only difference is that Jerry yearns for more than the stability of settled-down family life. He chafes at the invisible noose around his neck, and losing his job after moving his family to the middle of nowhere fills him with a shame he can’t begin to articulate. Searching for some sort of meaning, he volunteers to leave his family behind and help put out a forest fire on the Canadian border, leaving Joe and Mulligan’s Jeanette to fend for themselves – even though they’ve both, in a sense, already been alone for a while.

For her part, Jeanette is just as dissatisfied. She’s a woman on the verge of something the times haven’t quite invented yet. She chafes at the passive role of supportive homemaker, but the film’s time period makes her longing less socially acceptable. In her husband’s absence, she struggles to keep the family afloat and finds the courage to surrender to her independence. Both actors are great, making the complexities of their respective soul-searching look deceptively natural. But it’s Mulligan who really sticks with you. Her performance shouldn’t be underestimated or overlooked.

Wildlife is short on incident, but it runs deep with existential yearning. The film’s Montana setting, with its low, wide skies, seems to mock the roads not taken by these two lonely, restless souls. Rather than free them up, the openness that surrounds Jerry and Jeanette emphasizes how claustrophobic and penned in both of them feel inside. Dano has created a quiet film that slowly reveals its power and complexity like, well, a novel. He’s not in a rush, which is a rare trait for any filmmaker, nevermind a first-time one. Wildlife is confident and patient and mature. It may be a small film, but its power is massive. Especially its very last shot, which is so devastating it has the force of a sucker punch. B+