Paul Dano Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould
12A This handsomely made, meticulously acted period picture is an impressive directorial debut for Paul Dano, who creates some soberly beautiful tableaux of postwar American life. With his partner, the screenwriter and actor Zoe Kazan, Dano has adapted the novel by Richard Ford about Joe, a teenage boy who has moved to a small town in 1950s Montana with his parents. They are on the genteel, middle-class poverty line, living from pay cheque to pay cheque, and then to lack of pay cheque. When Joe’s restlessly angry and unemployed dad leaves to take a low-paying job fighting wildfires up in the hills, it ambiguously signals the end of his marriage, and Joe is the the witness to his mother Jeanette’s private depression and her courage in facing up to her new life choices.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jerry Brinson, the dad, a man who looks permanently gaunt and exhausted, deeply dismayed by his failure to master the American dream. Ed Oxenbould plays Joe. The role requires what might be considered a series of mute reaction shots, his cherubic face often set in a ruefully suppressed grimace as he impassively sizes up his father’s humiliation and depression and his mother’s disappointment with life.
Jeanette is played with terrific gusto by Carey Mulligan. It is one of the best roles and best performances of her career – giving her a chance to display maturity, wit, savvy and the emotional battle scars of life, and taking her away from the rather girlish image in which she has often been confined. She is a fighter, a smiler, never-say-die-er, but only so long as her husband is prepared to do his part.
This is a very watchable movie, beautifully and even luxuriously appointed in its austere evocation of smalltown America – though maybe a little self-conscious in its emotional woundedness. Perhaps the character of Joe is its flaw, being required to give us nothing much more than wordless dismay or acceptance of everything that is going on. Nevertheless, Dano has given us a satisfying drama of damaged lives.