Early on during Wildlife I thought to myself, Wow, this feels just like a Richard Ford novel, and I settled into its muted rhythms of frustrated American dreams and wide spaces. 

Consumed by this impressive movies, I’d forgotten all this by the end credits, until the screen flashed up: Based on the novel by Richard Ford. So congratulations, then, to debut director Paul Dano (whose moonish face you know best from Little Miss Sunshine, War and Peace and There Will Be Blood) for so expertly getting the tone, the colour, the texture, the dialogue, the performances just right.

Set in 1960, we are with a contented family in Montana – Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry has got a new job as greenskeeper at a golf club while Carey Mulligan’s Jean is at home making meatloaf in her perfect little kitchen, while young Joe seems happy enough at his new school. 

Then Jerry loses his job – too friendly with the members – and spirals into a crisis of masculinity and beer. He leaves to fight raging wild fires. Suddenly, Jean finds herself alone and needing a job, as well as a future. She flirts with a local rich car salesman who limps (Bill Camp) and who invites her and Joe over for dinner, to which Jean wears her “desperation dress”.

We register a lot through the close ups on Joe’s face – he’s happy when Mom and Dad cuddle and desolate when they argue and clearly doesn’t know what to make of Mom’s smoking and drinking and flirting. “When’s Dad coming back?” he’ll ask. 

Dano and his cameraman Diego Garcia shoot in steady tableaux, nothing fancy but perfectly composed, almost unforgivingly ironic in their detachment and stillness. Joe gets a job in a photographic studio, learning to take portraits of happy American families, smiling while the forests burn in the distance. 

Still, this is Mulligan’s movie, her best, most mature work, with all the skittishness she’s exhibited previously but also taking advantage of her vulnerability and sad eyes, as well as her loveliness.

Wildlife is a fine piece in a minor key, with music from Connie Francis and Dinah Washington, fragile female voices floating defiantly on the winds of change.