Paul Dano’s directorial debut impresses

Paul Dano has quietly established himself as one of the great actors working today, tackling roles as wildly diverse as a fiery young preacher in “There Will Be Blood” to an abandoned man who develops a friendship with a farting corpse in “Swiss Army Man.”

For his debut behind the camera, Dano directs a thoughtful and intelligent family drama in “Wildlife.” 

Dano adapted the screenplay from a Richard Ford novel, along with his real-life partner, Zoe Kazan, reportedly the first in a series of films he wants to make about dysfunctional families.

And while Dano and Kazan have already starred onscreen together in one of my favorite underseen gems of the last decade or so, “Ruby Sparks,” neither is in front of the camera for “Wildlife.”

“Wildlife” tells the story of a young family in 1960s small-town Montana. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an affable, working-class dad who makes a living as a golf pro.

But when Jerry suddenly loses his job, he’s thrown into uncertainty of how he will support his wife, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and the couple’s 14-year-old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould). 

Jeanette serendipitously finds a part-time job teaching swimming lessons (yes, in Montana), but Jerry decides to leave the family for work battling wildfires, a decision that Jeanette objects to strongly.

Suddenly thrust into single parenthood, Jeanette’s resentment for Jerry is apparent in her dealings with their son. And then she begins a relationship with another man in town.

As is often the case with an actor-turned-director (particularly one with his acting range), Dano pulls magnificent performances from his cast. That, along with beautiful cinematography and a patient-but-not-slow pace, makes “Wildlife” a magnificent debut.

Dano explores the deterioration of a ’60s atomic family in a way that evokes arcs of “Mad Men.” And the real emotional impact lies in the empathy the film has for all its characters.

Oxenbould is a find in the role of the son. It’s an impressively understated performance, as we see much of the film through Joe’s eyes as he watches his parents’ marriage dissolving around him.

Gyllenhaal works his range as a well-meaning man who suppresses emotion until it boils over.

But “Wildlife” simply belongs to Mulligan. Her complex, smart and fierce performance keeps Jeanette a sympathetic character, even as her actions impact both her son and husband. 

“Wildlife” could enter the race for year-end awards, but Mulligan’s name seems almost certain to be in any Best Actress conversation.