In early 60s small town America, 14-year-old Joe’s (Ed Oxenbould) amiable screw-up of a dad (Jake Gyllenhaal) resorts to the dangerous job of grunt-level forest firefighter, a job that will take him away from his family for several months. Joe witnesses helplessly his mother’s (Carey Mulligan) complex and unexpected reaction to the temporary separation.

Wildlife movie review

For his directorial debut, accomplished actor Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, Love & Mercy) goes deep with this most excellent adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel and creates a spare but striking, harsh yet humane mood piece. The movie’s disposition, much like a lot of the actor’s work, is muted and deliberate, and may not be for everyone. It will, however, delight those who appreciate a finely nuanced story that connects emotionally. Rarely have I seen a domestic drama presented with such polish and compassion.

Gyllenhaal offers his usual flawless portrayal, and Oxenbould is certainly a young actor to watch. But the movie belongs to Mulligan (An Education, Never Let Me Go) who puts in a risky, brave and quite extraordinary performance as a woman torn between family and self in the 60s, when families simply did not fall apart. The movie is distressing, but in all the right ways.

Wildlife movie review

Dano shares the screenwriting credits with his long-time partner Zoe Kazan (who starred in The Big Sick and Ruby Sparks, the latter of which she also co-wrote). And cinematographer Diego Garcia’s images beautifully complement the material.

Be interesting to see what director Dano does next. (105 min)