Wildlife ★★★½

In his directorial debut, Paul Dano excels at lending power to shopworn, shorthand moments of symbolic storytelling by lingering long on the experience of a character summoning some of these emotions — or, at the very least, coalescing them into a concept of the world — for the first time. There are moments when characters’ faces jut forward into jarringly clear focus from the fuzziness behind him, and Dano elicits strong work from all three of the leads here.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a man as washed up at being a husband as he is at playing golf, who has always prioritized pride over productive self-awareness. It’s a feeling emboldened by Dano’s cut in a critical scene to a wide shot where you feel that the unseen city fathers have let that same feeling take institutional roots. No wonder Jerry feels at home there. Admittedly saddled with more of a cipher character, Ed Oxenbould still finds what feels like … well, believable disbelief at that with which he is forced to reckon — the totality of your parents’ profiles when you understand who they are, and what they do, outside of that perception you have, and how difficult that is when, in every era and in towns of any size, you are learning who you are as well. And then there’s Carey Mulligan in what is perhaps her best turn yet as Jeanette, a wife and mother resigned to rejuvenating everyone else’s spirits but her own. She dare not speak it, she can only express it through body language that her husband ignores and her son does not yet understand. (Mulligan might want to look into insuring her neck muscles; their levels of flex and tension to communicate tectonic shifts of woe are unparalleled.) When Jerry leaves for a time in the middle of the film, Mulligan lets you feel the electricity change around Jeanette – for better and worse. You sense the liberation and longing in his absence, her voice flitting around several registers she’s not visited in a while, her posture loosening to what is simultaneously a more natural and exaggerated stature – the physicality of someone fighting through the fear of not knowing themselves. Bill Camp also excels, like always, as a man who lures Jeanette into his orbit in a way that’s rarely clear about whether it’s a romantic roll of the dice or just another routine.

Eventually “Wildlife” comes clean about that, as well as some other things. When the steam eventually blows from this hot little teapot, too much of it diffuses into something too pat and, rather disappointingly, judgmental of one character. Plus, you just know a photographer’s poetic waxing about the purpose of portraiture will come back around at the end. (The film should end one scene earlier, with a very subtle but revealing dinner-table detail.)

Still, it’s a tale oft told, but rarely with such sensitivity, intelligence and precision in ways that feel emblematic of Dano’s performances — infused with stillness and ache rather than stilted style and bluster.