How many of our parents’ fires can we be expected to put out? When we get close enough to know their fires — when we begin to act as their friends — do we lose them as parents?

Paul Dano’s contemplative directorial debut “Wildlife” (an adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel of the same name) engages with questions that shake familial dynamics to their core, as the film refracts the dissolution of a marriage through the struggling couples’ son.

In 1960s, small-town Montana, Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Nightcrawler”) loses his job as a golf pro. In his despair, Jerry decides to take a job fighting the wildfire raging nearby and sets his family’s tailspin in motion. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould, “The Visit”) consequently becomes the sole witness to his mother Jeanette’s (Carey Mulligan, “An Education”) rage in response to his father’s rash decision, as well as her primary confidant. Though the ensuing story hinges on his parents’ reactions to misfortune, in the spirit of the novel that inspired the film, it nonetheless foregrounds Joe’s experience. In doing so, it dares to tell the familiar tale of marital discord in an unfamiliar, important way. At the same time, however, Dano’s consistently contemplative tone makes for a complicated viewing experience.

Cinematographer Diego García’s (“Neon Bull”) inventive camerawork does much of the work of emphasizing the underrepresented perspective Joe embodies. Take, for instance, how conversations are shot. During pivotal dialogues — his father’s boss firing him, his parents arguing over his father’s decision to go fight the wildfire — the camera redirects and zooms in on Joe’s face, prioritizing Joe’s witnessing of conversations over other characters’ participation in them, reminding audiences how children are inevitably mired in their parents’ actions and reactions.

While the filmmakers endeavor to respect Joe’s perspective, Jerry and Jeannette are often too selfish to realize they cross the line in terms of what they say to and do in front of Joe. In that sense, they use him like a sounding board and treat him like a sponge. In one unsettling sequence, his mother brings him to the house of the man (Ed Camp, “Loving”) with whom she’s committing adultery. His father later forces him to retell and thus relive this traumatic experience. As countless other examples of his parents’ overstepping accumulate, you wonder: How much more can the boy possibly take? 

Over time, however, viewers might ask the same of the filmmakers. Oxenbould does the best he can with his how-could-you-do-that-in-front-of-me face, but the film does not give him the chance to show much range. Relatedly, Oxenbould’s Joe lacks perhaps not depth, but breadth. Though his parents use him like a sponge, had the filmmakers allowed him to leak every once in a while, to break from his constant facial register, to snap, perhaps he would have seemed a little more lifelike and a little less superhuman with some bottomless capacity for his parents’ problems.

Dano’s consistently contemplative tone likewise compromises the statements he seeks to make in “Wildlife.” There is such a thing as contemplative to the point of losing touch with your audience, and “Wildlife” always hovers on the verge of such a breakdown. For example, even the aforementioned technique used to capture conversations begins to feel overused with time. Can inventive camerawork compensate for cryptic dialogue? Can it tell us all we need to know about a character? Can it prop up visual motifs — e.g. wildfires, portraiture and frames within frames — that one cannot help but suspect might be symptomatic of the book-to-film adaptation?

“Wildlife” does not concern itself with providing audience members any relief or gratification. The brutal honesty of the film is demanding, and its refusal of gratification requires much post-viewing reflection and turmoil to arrive at any resolutions, no matter how provocative and necessary the questions regarding selfishness and parent-child dynamics within a marriage may be. While “Wildlife” may ask a lot of the viewer, the question each viewer has to ask in turn is whether “Wildlife” gave enough.

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