For his directorial debut actor Paul Dano (“Love & Mercy,” “There Will Be Blood”) took on the challenging task of adapting Richard Ford's 1990 novel of the same name. As could be expected from an attempt to visually represent Ford's endogenous storytelling, the screenplay, which Dano co-wrote with his partner, actor Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks,” “The Big Sick”), doesn't adequately convey the interior of the characters in this domestic drama, making their actions seem overhasty and implausible.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jerry Brinson, an overly personable golf pro who has moved his family from the Pacific Northwest to Montana in 1960. His wife, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), are reluctantly settling in to the small town, anxiously trying to keep up the pretense of optimism.
Despite his family's support, Jerry gets fired for betting with members of the golf club where he works, and instead of finding a comparable job or accepting the job back, he joins up with the oddballs and drifters, “the deadbeats,” as Jeanette calls them, who are trundled to the mountains to fight the wildfires burning the adjacent landscape.
For all her steely resolve to buoy her family in the first 20 minutes of the movie, including taking a job teaching some of the adult townsfolk to swim, Jeanette transforms almost instantly in Jerry's absence. Mulligan, whose expressive face conveyed the character's latent dread, which is all the more affecting because of its understatement, in these early scenes, explodes into a stagy stereotype; a Tennessee Williams' vamp without the Southern charm or caged-up edge. And because Dano shoots her from outsider her own point of view, we have no understanding of her feelings beyond wild, unfocused desperation.
When Ford granted Dano the rights to his novel, he told the aspiring director, “My book’s my book, and your picture’s your picture.” Still, some of the alterations he and Kazan wrote into the script are unjustifiable. Take, for example, the first line of the novel: "In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him." It's a concise cause and effect that's missing entirely from Dano and Kazan's script.
Where Ford also has the advantage is in the age and perspective of his narrator. On-screen, Joe is limited to his age at the time of the events, 14, and this choice restricts his understanding of them. But it doesn't seem to matter to Dano, who shoots this immature perspective through the unnatural, self-conscious angles of a first-time director.