Actor Paul Dano took on a lot when he decided to adapt Richard Ford’s 1990 novel as his directorial debut. Dano does not appear in the movie, and neither does his significant other and co-scenarist Zoe Kazan, but there’s something of the pair’s storied flair for the quirky and unexpected in both the story and the way they pull it off. Ford’s book takes place in the 1960s, in a backward backwater in Montana, where a family of three has relocated. The father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a golf pro who has given up competition to take a job at a local country club. The town is overshadowed by a mountain that seems to be constantly on fire, a situation that’s the source of a lot of local black humor. The mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), is a housewife who, at first, seems resigned to her fate of constant motion for the sake of her husband’s ambitions, which only go as far as his pride. The teenage son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), is, according to Jerry, destined to be a distinguished football player, though Joe is so unassuming that you can’t imagine him giving or receiving a tackle.
The character of this family is mostly expressed through innuendo, and thus requires a crisis to make apparent the weak structure holding it together. Jerry is fired for a serious infraction, but when the country club realizes its mistake it offers him his job back. He can’t get over the slight and turns it down. “I won’t work for people like that.” Jerry is principled to a fault. It’s his abiding trait, and absolutely destructive for the family he feels is his greatest accomplishment. He takes a job as a firefighter on that mountain, and promptly leaves the story and the lives of his wife and son.
Jerry’s absence sets Jeanette free, both socioeconomically and emotionally, and it’s difficult to decide if her transformation from a domestic helpmate into a raging force of nature is a function of the story or an inevitable turn of events. Dano and, I assume, Ford don’t give us much backstory to make that determination, so the dramatic effect is immediate and powerful. She gets a job and starts seeing an older man (Bill Camp) who has money and is set in his ways. He lacks Jerry’s sense of righteousness but she justifies the affair by telling herself, and her son, that she deserves affluence and stability. Joe, who still respects his father, has trouble forgiving her.
Dano honors the story without exercising his ego, and perhaps because he’s spent enough time on the other side of the camera, he allows his actors to explore their characters fully, so much so that Gyllenhaal, who is basically a supporting player here, maintains Jerry’s existence in his family’s thoughts even if he isn’t present physically. He embodies the quality of Jerry’s particular generation that honored integrity without giving an inch to sentimentality, a quality that haunts his son and enrages his wife, who end up at each other’s throats because they can’t escape his spell.
Now playing in Tokyo at Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
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