"Tomorrow something will happen to make things feel different," a character declares early in the incisive domestic drama Wildlife, the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano. Things suddenly becoming different is the promise of most contemporary movies, where the drabness of everyday life is forever being brightened up by surprise superpowers or opportunities for violent heroism. In Dano's film, set in Montana in 1960, the thought is a fantasy. Nothing is going to make this small town or this family feel different, not even the unemployed father (Jake Gyllenhaal) lighting out to risk his life on a crew fighting wildfires for the summer, much to the disgust of his wife Jeanette (the superb Carey Mulligan). The couple has begun to discover that raw truth that, around 1960, American novelists and filmmakers were only starting to face in their art: that the post-war dream of a little house and a little family just might not be enough to ensure happiness.
Gyllenhaal dominates the first few scenes, playing a man too prickly prideful to accept an offer to return to the golf caddie job he's been fired from. And then he's gone, and Wildlife belongs to Mulligan, whose bold, ferocious performance as a woman recklessly searching for change herself stands among the best in contemporary movies. Mulligan reveals Jeanette's conflicting impulses, her struggle to honor all the roles in which life has cast her but also her sense that she might have been given a second chance. She lunges for this in a lengthy, discomfiting sequence of transactional flirting at dinner with a rich man (Bill Camp) and her teen son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Dano's film is shrewd and exacting, composed with rigor yet alert to the rhythms of its performers.