Sometimes actors can really direct. Case in point, Paul Dano. Having worked with masters of the form in his short but impressive career, Dano seems to have learned a lot from the likes of Steve McQueen, Denis Villeneuve, Paul Thomas Anderson and Rian Johnson. One would easily think that the 35-year-old actor, now turned filmmaker, looked closely and attentively at these filmmakers at work to prepare for his eventual debut, “Wildlife.” The result is a precise, controlled, but perhaps emotionally distant adaptation of Richard Ford’s short novel.

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Taking place in the ’60s in mountainous Montana, in the midst of cultural change for women who started to see and feel freedoms otherwise no afforded to them, “Wildlife” is told through the eyes of a married couple’s 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould).

Jerry Brinson (a brooding, haunted Jake Gyllenhaal) is the husband, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) his wife. Their marriage feels passionless, as cold and restrained as Dano’s film, and much of the problems reside in the fact that Jerry keeps making them move from city to city, unsatisfied with wherever they settle. Things take a turn for the worse and escalate into sheer fury when he’s fired from his job at a local golf course for being inappropriately friendly with the customers. Even when he’s offered his job back, Jerry refuses, and Jeanette explains to their son it’s about pride, and that dad will soon find another job. Instead, Jerry just slacks around the house, but the slow-burning demons that have haunted their marriage lurk just around the edges. Those tensions boil over when Jerry decides to join the firefighters who are fighting a blaze far outside of town, taking on lots of risk, for little pay. This decision becomes his undoing as Jeanette starts to break down and lose any kind of attachment that she might have had for her husband.

Dano, working with brilliant cinematographer Diego Garcia (“Cemetery Of Splendour,” “Neon Bull“), prefers to use slow-moving, picturesque pans in his film rather than any kind of flashy style that might be used by a first-time director. It’s a smart decision as “Wildlife” builds up considerable dread throughout its 100 minute running time, but those same lovely images also detract and sometimes the director unintentionally sucks the dramatic tension he might be trying to convey dry with formalist detachment.

It helps that the performances are magnificent. Unknown Oxenbould is supposed to carry the film, and he does just that in an unshowy and interesting performance, but it’s Mulligan that becomes the heart and soul of the picture. Jeanette’s desperate mental breakdown leads to her romancing the wealthy Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a much older fellow that befriends her when she starts giving him private swimming lessons at the local YMCA. Joe, a bright open-eyed boy, soon puts two and two together and realizes her mom is having an affair, which destabilizes the 14-year-old and brings about an emotional angst he is ill-equipped to handle.

“Wildlife” could have easily dissolved into melodrama, but the fact that it doesn’t is a testament to Dano’s assured direction, which makes a book that, by all accounts, was deemed unfilmable, filmable. The screenplay by Dano and his partner and actress Zoe Kazan is a little more problematic. The film is easy to admire, but lacks the kinds of scenes necessary to truly make a emotional connection. Additionally, “Wildlife” can be chilly and ponderous to a fault, with its subtle and quiet approach impenetrable at times.

Dano is trying to make the point that the adults in this picture have much less maturity than a 14-year-old boy that is still learning things about himself. The final frame of the film, a photo shoot, is filled with a sense of malaise that is really the only way a film such as “Wildlife” could have ended. Dano’s way of seeing the world through the lens of a movie camera makes him a talent to watch in the future, however, his sense of nihilism and the cold-hearted touch towards his characters, is something he should be mindful of next time. [B-]

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