Wildlife, the supremely assured directorial debut of the actor Paul Dano, returns us to the mid-20th century middle America of Richard Ford, the author whose work previously inspired Sam Mendes' 2008 drama Revolutionary Road. (Dano's partner and co-writer Zoe Kazan had a supporting role in that film: you sense she must have read around, which brings us here.) Ford's America is a place of rigid squareness and muted pastels; where any attempt to move away from the established centre ground leaves the individual at risk of becoming a pariah. Dano's film opens with a father and son tossing a pigskin around in their front yard, and being called in to dinner - almost a stock image of the period, preserving a status quo you feel could last forever - and then watches, gripped, as this display of family unity is exposed as if not false, exactly, then certainly fragile in the extreme. Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his nothingy job as a golf pro, sulkily retreats from the world and the marital bed, and then - to prove something, either to himself or his loved ones - volunteers to help fight the wildfires blazing beyond this small Montana town's horizons. Mum Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is forced out to find paying work to keep a roof over what remains of the family's heads, and - as a vivacious young mother - inevitably catches the eye of men who aren't Jerry. These changes to the domestic set-up are observed by 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), a rather doleful soul whose innocence is about to be shattered forever. Somewhere on the outskirts of town, those wildfires are raging, setting us to fear that somebody's going to get badly burned, if not entirely burnt up.
We don't see a single lick of flame for the first 45 minutes, but it's a testament to the completeness of the film's vision that we feel its dramatic heat closing in on these characters. A tactic of sorts is established in that first dinner scene, as Jerry and Jeanette walk beyond the stationary camera into areas of this home we cannot see: right from the off, Dano asserts there will be parts of these lives that will be off-limits to young Joe - and therefore to us. (David Lang's score also cues us to the fact there are mysteries in play here, those of overlooked lives.) We nevertheless hope that Joe - who has a Saturday job as a photographer's assistant - will be able to get at a fuller, more truthful picture, and Oxenbould, who looks to have both grown up and majorly calmed down since his godawful turn as the rapping brat in Shyamalan's The Visit, has a newfound watchfulness about him that reassures us that this narrative isn't a glum done deal. Ford knew there was a young life, and a future set of relationships, at stake in this household; Dano shows us the traumas of a breaking-to-broken home imprinting themselves on Joe's memory as vividly as colours on Kodachrome. The film's own hazy look is very deliberate: it's not residual nostalgia, an attempt to dress this period up in any way - the writing is clear-eyed about the fact this might be a formative moment for a world order that persists even today - but presumably the result of the smoke drifting in off the hills, threatening to obscure these lives all the more. Wherever you look in Wildlife, the characters appear penned in, pinned down; you worry their only recourse will be to explode, or crumble under the pressure.
If the leads sometimes seem too youthful for their roles, that's not unlike Revolutionary Road (which mitigated against the essential depressiveness of its fable by offering a potentially crowdpleasing reunion of the lovers from Titanic), and not unsymptomatic of a moment where our best and brightest performers rarely seem as lived-in as the hard-drinking, combat-seeing stars of the past. (Hard to convincingly pass as prematurely aged folk slumping into a dreadful rut when you're mainlining wheatgrass and doing Bikram yoga three times a week.) This, too, appears partly deliberate, however. Jerry and Jeanette are written as a young couple ("I'm 34," the latter declares to the teen sitting across from her. "Does that sound wrong to you? Should I say 50?"), straitjacketed by the domesticity that was the norm in the post-War, pre-Beatles era, kids who married early, procreated, and then found themselves asking the biggest of all questions: well, now what? Repent at leisure, possibly: one look at Warren, the limping, unprepossessing, fiftysomething war veteran Jeanette takes up with - a man capable of offering her the financial security, but otherwise promises all the excitement of the average bucket of sand - and you immediately grasp the limited options available to women of this time in non-metropolitan areas. (He's played by the great Bill Camp, who does his usual bang-up job of characterisation, while remaining perhaps the biggest sport in the acting business.)
The narrative spirits Gyllenhaal offscreen with a haunted look in his eye - that of a man petrified of the failure he fears he may be heading towards - then returns him late on, at which point it becomes terrifyingly clear that something far more toxic and harmful than ash got into Jerry out there, on the fringes of civilisation. His absence, however, clears the screen for Mulligan to triumph in the kind of role actresses under studio contract at the time the film is set would quite possibly have killed for - that of the extraordinarily desperate housewife. We've seen this actress do the sweetness and light Jeanette affects while trying to find a place in a world that, as of 1960, has no real place for her - a striving that touches us, but which the adolescent Joe naturally finds a little naff. What's new is the fierce sourness the camera finds in Mulligan's face at moments of repose, an expression that suggests this woman would rather be anywhere but here. You can imagine this character descending into alcoholism on a dull and drizzly Thursday afternoon in her future - and again you realise just how far the film has extended itself beyond the confines of these frames, the extent to which it's taken up residence in your imagination. In and of itself, it's a restrained piece, truer to Ford's mundane lives lived in quiet backwaters than the lavish, studio-backed Mendes film, yet its closing moments, reassembling this family unit in something like harmony for the first time since that opening sequence, achieve an almost staggeringly perfect balance between hope and despair. The camera never lies. Except when it does.
Wildlife is available on DVD through Icon from Monday.