Richard Ford's novels and short stories have received wide acclaim, and critics have likened the author to Hemingway and Faulkner on account of his ability to create compelling narratives and complex characters.
His 1990 novel Wildlife, however, isn't generally regarded as one of his best works and certainly hasn't been as anthologized as either 1987's Rock Springs or 1995's Independence Day.
And yet, it's the source material that actor Paul Dano chose for his directorial debut, which he also co-wrote. A well-crafted but rather ponderous account of the breakup of a marriage, Wildlife opens on Friday, Nov. 16, at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
Like the book, the movie is set in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960. And like the book, the movie is told from the point of view of Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), a 16-year-old boy who doesn't quite sense the significance of the tension that exists between his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal).
But when Jerry gets canned from his job as a golf-course caretaker, things go south pretty quickly and the seemingly idyllic family life turns dysfunctional (and becomes more interesting too).
Jerry starts drinking heavily, and Jeanette begins a desperate search for a job. When Jerry takes a gig fighting forest fires and disappears for the summer, Jeanette feels like he's given up on her family. She begins having an affair with a local businessman (Bill Camp), a guy she met at the YMCA, where she gives swimming lessons.
Predictably enough, Jerry returns in the fall after a summer in the mountains and thinks his family life will return to normal. When he realizes Jeanette has been "stepping out" on him, he loses it and tries to glean what information he can from Joe, who's admittedly rather naïve when it comes to romance, though he does confess that Jeanette was unfaithful.
''This is a wild life, isn't it?" Jerry tells Joe, making the metaphor of fighting fires and surviving life's ordeals a little too obvious.
While the film stumbles out of the gates with a slow-paced first half, it redeems itself with a dramatic climax that lets the talented cast show off its acting chops.
The performances here are really fantastic. Mulligan plays Jeanette as a woman who establishes her independence by making some questionable choices; Oxenbould shines as a teenager forced to grow up on the fly; and Gyllenhaal turns Jerry into a tragic hero who becomes a sympathetic character despite his clear flaws.