Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 2018. June Pictures, Nine Stories Productions, Sight Unseen Pictures. Screenplay by Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, based on the book by Richard Ford. Cinematography by Diego García. Produced by Paul Dano, Andrew Duncan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Oren Moverman, Ann Ruark, Alex Saks. Music by David Lang. Production Design by Akin McKenzie. Costume Design by Amanda Ford. Film Editing by Louise Ford, Matthew Hannam. Toronto International Film Festival 2018.
The disintegration of an American family living in the heartland is examined in this poignant adaptation of the novel by Richard Ford. First-time director Paul Dano threatens tweeness in the film’s opening scenes, images of two parents (Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan) and their son (Ed Oxenbould) placed within postcard-perfect recreations of early sixties small-town life that look like they have Instagram filters placed on them. Time passes, though, and the story’s traumatic pain sets in, giving way to something deeper and more finely etched as the differences between the parents sees mom emotionally unravel when her unemployed husband decides to take a job putting out forest fires in the hills surrounding their Montana town. Angry at him for risking his life on such a dangerous job, one whose worst outcome would leave them vulnerable to her worst fears, Mulligan drops the helpful homemaker routine she has been sporting up until that point and explores her rage, but sixties feminism is too far ahead in the future and her own unprocessed bitterness over where her life has ended up means her behavior takes the form of making some reckless decisions that her pensive, dutiful son must witness. Dano’s daring choice to find the explosive conflicts in a family that falls apart while avoiding the kind of domestic violence clichés that usually accompany this kind of tale pays off beautifully, there is so much unspoken tension in the spaces between characters’ words and actions that it ends up being far more torturous to bear than some of the scariest thrillers out there. Mulligan brings a rich complexity to her character’s increasing sense of alienation and doubt, you worry about the character rather than judge her, but her superb talent can’t obscure the fact that she’s too young for the role and is never quite convincing as American (she’s playing a role that Sissy Spacek would have played in the seventies, roles that are now being played by British and Australian actors because the American film industry rarely lets Sissy Spaceks make it this far in the business). Oxenbould (whose American demeanor is convincing) provides a great deal of the film’s rich emotional texture, sincere and upstanding and that much more sympathetic for the horrors he witnesses between two people who are unable to find the self-awareness they need to survive their failed relationship.