The place is Montana, the moment 1960. A marriage founders while somewhere over the hills a forest is ablaze. In the middle of this drama, a 14-year-old boy tries to figure out his place in the world.
This situation comes from “Wildlife,” a short novel by the great American writer Richard Ford. It’s been adapted into a serious, beautifully acted new film, a film that — whatever else it achieves — should confirm Carey Mulligan’s status as one of the best actresses alive.
The 14-year-old is Joe (Ed Oxenbould, from “The Visit”), an only child in a tense home. His defensive dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just been fired from his job as a golf pro — again. Jerry is beginning to carry the slightly embarrassing aura of a former jock running out of chances.
Joe’s mom Jeannette (Mulligan) has had about enough. The 1950s aren’t really over, so most of what goes on in the marriage happens beneath the surface, just below the boiling point.
The story turns on Jerry’s rash decision to join the firefighting brigade a far distance from home. Maybe he’s doing it to find a purpose, maybe he’s doing it to escape. The movie lets him go, keeping its attention on Jeannette’s limited options (which include the attention of a widower, superbly played by Bill Camp) and Joe’s confusion.
“Wildlife” has been adapted from the book by two actors, Paul Dano (director and screenwriter) and Zoe Kazan (screenwriter). They don’t appear in the movie themselves, but you could almost guess “Wildlife” had been shaped by actors: While it has a formal visual style, as though emphasizing how trapped its characters are, it really comes alive in the energy between the performers onscreen.
Gyllenhaal, whose doggedness sometimes gives his performances an over-baked quality (see “Nightcrawler” or “Prisoners”), appears more relaxed here, more human. His intensity this time is all about a guy who can’t believe things aren’t working out the way they were supposed to.
He gallantly plays second fiddle to Mulligan, whose performance consistently finds its mark. Mulligan plays Jeannette’s strengths and weaknesses without trying to hold her up as any kind of paragon. We can feel for her because of her limited options as a housewife in 1960, but we can also see how her choices have an infuriating effect on her son.
About that son. One of the weak points for “Wildfire” is the way it presents one of those prematurely wise teenagers, all too obviously a future author who will someday write about his parents’ wobbly marriage.
“Wildfire” is the first directing job for Dano, who played the young Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy.” You can sense some indulgence toward his fellow actors: The story’s confrontations and arguments tend to go on just a little too long, as though to showcase the performers’ skills. But what skills! A little long-windedness is forgivable when the people on screen are this strong — especially when they include Carey Mulligan.
“Wildlife” (3 stars)
A marriage in 1960 Montana wobbles as a 14-year-old boy watches his parents grow apart — a situation drawn from Richard Ford’s novel, adapted by director Paul Dano. The movie is perhaps a little indulgent of its actors, but when they’re as good as Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are in this film, indulgence is forgivable.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Meridian, Seattle 10