Since we live comfortably at the top of the food chain, we humans like to cling to the delusion that we aren't animals at all. Our intelligence and sophisticated desires form a layer over the animal drives we'd rather not own, a situation that lends itself to psychological confusion and nervous breakdowns. Richard Ford's 1990 novel "Wildlife" -- now a film directed and co-written by Paul Dano -- observes a family acting out of instinct as it weathers an existential crisis. Neither action nor introspection seems to help much, but the pull of nature persists.
Set in small-town Montana circa 1960, "Wildlife" sticks closely to the point of view of 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Joe's parents, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), have recently moved the family to this sleepy town, but neither Jerry nor Joe finds themselves the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Having lost his job, Jerry flounders in despair rather than taking work he considers beneath him ("I didn't come to Montana to bag groceries," he grouses). Jerry presses Joe in athletics and academics, although he's a benchwarmer with average grades. Meanwhile, housewife Jeanette frets, smiling tightly and trying to be supportive.
Everything changes when Jerry, on a whim of masculine insecurity, announces he's signed up to fight an out-of-control forest fire. When Jeanette asks what he'll be doing, Jerry replies, "Whatever they need men for ... I've got this hum in my head, and I've got to do something about it." With that, he is gone, pushing Jeanette momentarily beyond the limits of her outward optimism. "What kind of a man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?" Soon, Jeanette will move beyond the limits of her marriage, seeking work and the attentions of another man (Bill Camp as car salesman Warren).
"Wildlife" plays out as a psychological horror movie about a boy watching his parents individually fall apart as well as the marriage between them crumbling, all in slow motion. Just as the audience watches helplessly, Joe proves helpless to stop his parents from making alarming, appalling choices. Both parents unfairly heap their psychological baggage onto their son, who -- like so many American children -- finds himself stuck in the middle of his parents' conflict and asked to take sides.
First-time director Dano, who co-scripted with partner Zoe Kazan, has a knack for capturing quotidian daily struggles as well as moments of discovery that hearten or, more often, horrify. Since Dano and Kazan are both actors, the writing and direction lend themselves to psychological realism and emotional spontaneity. With patience and restraint, Dano uses actorly insight and calmly controlled photography and editing to stay attuned to the nuances of three strong central performances.
Mulligan gets the most broadly ranging role, from its early study in resilience, projecting optimism despite her fears, to her painful search for a best-case scenario and acceptance that the lemonade she's made from her lemons will taste sour indeed; Gyllenhaal skillfully inhabits the gender-role pressure of the post-war American male; and Oxenbould breaks out as the sensitive soul, learning more than he ever wanted to know about his emotionally fraught parents.