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Review: Carey Mulligan gives her best performance in a decade, in 'Wildlife'

What’s pretty and well acted but slow to build? That would be “Wildlife,” the directorial debut of Paul Dano, a talented actor you’d know best as the tall emo kid from “Little Miss Sunshine” or Daniel Day Lewis’ evangelical adversary in “There Will Be Blood.” He chooses his projects carefully, and his taste is impeccable, which is why his first stab at the helm has been highly anticipated.

A fan of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name, Dano wrote to the author, gaining the rights to its film adaptation, which he and his long-time partner and fellow actor Zoe Kazan co-wrote. And while I can appreciate its simplicity – each scene is a small, quiet and perfectly-framed work of art in its own way – we often feel as confined as the characters do in their bucolic town.

Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) struggle to find happiness in 1960s Montana. Jerry is a golf pro who was recently fired. Instead of seeking conventional, decent-paying work in town, he is irrationally drawn to fight the wildfires raging in the forests on the Canadian border.

We, as the audience, don’t quite understand or relate to Jerry’s spontaneous-bordering-on-senseless urge to put his life on the line for little pay. But then again, people have done crazier things, so his pursuit, though we cannot relate, is real and urgent. He leaves immediately.

With Jerry’s departure, Jeanette, the perfect housewife from a bygone era who at first seeks to keep the family intact with a casserole and the blushing promise of finding employment, spins into a mid-life crisis – or perhaps she is coming of age alongside her adolescent son – when she takes a job as a swim instructor and falls for her student, a wealthy car dealer nearly twice her age. The family unit is stretched to its breaking point, held together by its youngest member who comes to the painful realization that his parents are fallible and life can be a wild, tumultuous ride.

This is precisely the kind of film we expect to see this time of year, pushing for award consideration with a low concept, character-driven script. In just the last few years with the success of other independently produced movies, films like “Wildlife” have had a fighting chance at reaching an audience. Focusing on its characters rather than quick and dirty plot development, such films attract great talent while maintaining that indie house feel.

“Wildlife” certainly checks those boxes. Uniquely flawed characters? Check. Drama focused around the connections that tie, or tear apart, a family? Check. A cast chock full of indie darlings? Check, check, check. Despite the drama, “Wildlife” is slow. It’s like walking on a treadmill; we’re constantly in motion, through scene after scene, yet it feels like we go nowhere.

Like a still-life painting, the action is in the details. Jeanette’s increasingly manic choices lead her into the arms of an older man who is takes advantage of her naiveté and desperation. Joe’s budding awareness of his deteriorating family unit is visible in his curious stares and worried questions. This is a portrait of a family, not a high adrenaline thriller or even a moderately fast-paced drama.

Above all else, the film is a vessel for its performances. In a pivotal scene, Jeannette drags Joe to dinner with her slimy love interest. They sit in uncomfortable silence. Jeanette flings her carnal charm around the room like Marilyn Monroe, but the result is far from favorable. It is here that Mulligan shines with the timing and vulnerability of the veteran actor she is. We pity Jeanette, but we can’t take our eyes off her wretched runaway train.

“Wildlife” isn’t rosy, and it certainly doesn’t do a song and dance for purely entertainment purposes. This can be a deterrent for many filmgoers seeking lighter fare. But Mulligan gives her best performance in a decade, and what Dano accomplishes is an admirable debut full of heart.