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Actor Paul Dano steps behind the camera for the first time and hits a bullseye as the director and co-screenwriter of a scorching 2018 drama called Wildlife, an emotionally charged drama about a teenager watching his family implode before his eyes and being powerless to do anything about it. This one had me talking back at the screen.

This edgy and challenging story is set in Great Falls, Montana in 1960. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is married to Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), has a 14-year old son named Joe (Ed Oxenbould). and works as a maintenance man at the local golf course. Jerry is fired from his job for "being overly familiar with the customers", but a few days later, the golf course offers to take him back, but his pride won't let him go back. Jerry doesn't put a lot of effort into getting another job, but Jeanette immediately gets a part time job teaching swimming at the Y. Joe also gets a job as a photographer's assistant. Eventually, Jerry accepts a job in the mountains battle some dangerous brush fires which pays $1.00 an hour.

Jerry's absence from the house seems to release Jeanette's inner tramp, who almost immediately drifts into an affair with one of her swimming students, an older wealthy businessman who is separated from his wife. Jeanette puts a little effort into concealing the affair from Joe and though he is not fooled, he can't be honest with his mother about what she's doing nor the fact that watching his family implode is killing him on the inside.

Dano and co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan have crafted a textured story that initially presents what appears to be a picture perfect family, a glossy veneer that is peeled away methodically as Jerry's alleged laziness about getting another job subtly begins revealing backstory that we don't see coming. It becomes clear pretty quickly that this marriage has bee a sham for a long time and that Jerry and Jeanette have worked pretty effectively to shield from Joe, but once Jerry's gone, Jeanette decides to stop pretending that her life is what she wants it to be, often leaving her son out in the cold. There's a scene after Jerry gets fired where Joe discovers his dad is sleeping on the sofa and it is obvious from Jerry's lack of concern at being seen that this absolutely not the first time in his marriage that he has slept on the couch.

Dano's direction is intense and arresting, putting some really ugly behavior and its heartbreaking consequences center stage through this icy and bitter woman who has been screaming on the inside for years and is not going to do it anymore. Dano shows a real skill with the steady cam as it follows Joe through the darkened hallways of his home trying to figure out what his mother is doing.

Dano also pulls solid performances from his cast. Gyllenhaal makes the most of his role as Jerry and Ed Oxenbould is a revelation in a star making turn as young Joe, but the real story here is the powerhouse performance from Carey Mulligan as Jeanette. I've only seen two other performances of her, but I have never seen her command the screen the way she does here. This is a performance of brass and balls and fire that makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her. This performance is fascinating because Mulligan creates a character who you never know at any point in this movie what the character is thinking. On the other hand, a lot of the character comes through in Mulligan's body language...Jeanette's moves tell us so much more about her than her dialogue. This performance reminded me of Jessica Lange in her prime. I think her work here is Oscar-worthy and am surprised she was overlooked. As I look over last year's nominees, I would have nominated Mulligan over Melissa McCarthy or over Lady GaGa. This movie had my stomach tied up in knots, talking back to the screen and credit must go to Dano who makes a seriously impressive debut as a filmmaker.