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Carey Mulligan has been confidently constructing a tasteful resume since her auspicious breakout in 2009’s An Education. She’s worked alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and under the lenses of the great Coen Brothers and Steve McQueen. But never has her light shined brighter than as an unfaithful wife in Paul Dano’s always low-broiling, sometimes crushing debut Wildlife.

Dano’s tender account of a splintering family is simply constructed but carries ample weight. The Brinsons are a run-of-the-mill family living a run-of-the-mill life but Dano smuggles in a nonetheless pressing message about the monotony of love and the pain suffered when it sags. Allowing his performers lots of breathing room, Dano disappears entirely and we’re left watching this fractured family like flies on the wall, casual observers of their simple but painstaking tribulations. Trivial though they may seem, the Brinson’s story is both human and humane.

The year is 1960 and the family of three has relocated to Great Falls, Montana. It’s not their first move chasing employment and it won’t be their last. Jerry, the Brinson patriarch, is an amiable enough head of house. A bit proud perhaps, irrational when times call for deep reflection, and with a penchant for drinking away his problems. Jake Gyllenhaal imbues Jerry with a sense of childish stubbornness – in his romantic and professional dealings both. When he is fired from his job at the golf course, he is too proud to assume re-employment when he is asked back on but the next day. 

Rushing off to fight wildfires, and avoid the troubles brewing under his roof, Jerry leaves behind wife Jeanette (Mulligan) and son Joe (The Visit’s Ed Oxenbould). As Joe takes on the responsibilities associated with being the man of the house, his father’s departure takes on new meaning and the warped nature of his parent’s relationship takes new shape. We see the world changing through Joe’s eyes and Dano communicates just how difficult, weird, and painful the whole thing is. It isn’t long before Jeanette is seeing a new guy, a well-to-do older man named Warren Miller (Bill Camp), flaunting her new romance in front of Joe in increasingly awkward situations. Mulligan commands these scenes, playing fast and loose with her sexuality and weilding it to advance her causes.

Wildlife is a character study through and through and Dano succeeds spectacularly at getting under the skin of the central trio. His is a film of quiet reflection, made of little moments, narratively quaint but emotionally robust. As a filmmaker, Dano reveals handiwork that’s never showy, allowing himself to sink into the shadows as his performers step assuredly into the forefront. For a first feature, Wildlife scores for its restraint, even if that holds it back from ever being truly great. 

The accoutrements – handsome cinematography from Diego Garcia, assured and period-appropriate set design, and David Lang’s sneaky score – all contribute to the greater sense of purpose Dano whips up. Wildlife is not a showy debut, nor is it something that’ll have you singing its praises to the masses, but it’s a dutifully crafted and smartly performed drama that relishes the small things in just the right way. 

CONCLUSION: Paul Dano’s directorial debut puts a 1960s nuclear family under the burner and watches them squirm with three strong performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould lending this little drama some notable staying power, even if the independent drama is ultimately a bit insubstantial. 

B-

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