A directors first film can be seen as a statement of intent, an announcement of a point of view—though of course, filmmakers shouldnt be strictly held to whatever declaration they make with their first attempt, if theres a declaration at all. But those early impulses can still be instructive when surveying a career, or its potential.

I wonder, then, what were to make of Wildlife (opening October 19), the directorial debut from the actor Paul Dano, who co-wrote the screenplay with his partner, Zoe Kazan. Adapted from the 1990 novel by Richard Ford, Wildlife is a straightforward period piece about marital angst. Its a tale weve seen plenty of times before, told deliberately and tastefully, giving no glimmers of idiosyncrasy or, frankly, personality.

Which isnt to say Dano proves himself an incapable director; its just the opposite, which is curiously part of the problem. Wildlife is lovely and studied, a bit of measured elegance in the manner of Ang Lees The Ice Storm. Theres a muted, dreamy poeticism at work in its lingering shots, a watchfulness that lets the mood sink, something profound beginning to whisper at the films edges. With cinematography by Diego Garcia and music by David Lang, the film has an aching polish, a somber beauty that richly underscores all the angst. Dano has composed his film well, and could probably be trusted to helm any manner of respectable autumn glossies in the future.

I wish things were messier, though—that the film showed some ragged edge or sloppy sentiment. Anything that might have made it palpably distinct. Wildlife is awfully clean and honed and safe for a debut film, especially one from a director who could afford a little risk—a lot of potential winnowed down into something inert and dismayingly familiar.

Throughout the film, I found myself wondering, Why this story? Set in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960, Wildlife tells the tale of teenage Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the only child of a peripatetic family. His dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is decent but restless, possessed of a literary male yearning that pulls him away from his responsibilities. To that end, he leaves his wife, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and son behind to go fight wildfires in the nearby foothills. While hes gone, Jeanette sets about trying to secure a future for herself and her son, should Jerry not return—killed by fire or, potentially, lost to wanderlust.

There are some nice moments in Wildlife, when Dano drifts in on Joe processing the fraught and confused lives of grown-ups—a nice kid learning the ways of the world—and we feel a pang of connection. The film is good at capturing that: the proximity and distance between child and parent. But most everything else is a glassy snooze, erratic without being interesting. Mulligan is a terrific actress, but even she cant figure out just who Jeanette is supposed to be. I gather that her identity crisis is sort of the point, but its hard to care for a character who makes so little sense. Jeanette goes from zero to Tennessee Williams heroine in about two scenes, so rocked by Jerrys departure is she. Which is confusing, when its our understanding that Jerry is probably only going to be gone for a few weeks.

Jerry is absent for the middle stretch of the film, but at the beginning and end Gyllenhaal gives him your standard, stoic midcentury-man treatment. Hes affable until hes aloof; hes put-upon and prideful. Theres even a scene of surprising violence! Weve seen these Don Drapers and Jack Arnolds many times in the past, and though Gyllenhaal is commanding as ever, we learn nothing new from him about this archetype.

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Stuck in the middle, of course, is Joe, the innocent subject to his parents conflicting whims. Oxenbould, with his wide cow eyes and placid demeanor, certainly fits into the films ponderous aesthetic. But we dont see much of Joe as himself, beyond his time at an after-school job and a burgeoning friendship with a local girl that frustratingly goes nowhere. (The movie has a few plot threads like that, often a side effect of adapting a novel and trying to cram everything in.) If its Joes story that is ultimately being told here, its done in only the faintest of sketches.

Though maybe its actually Jeanettes story, about a woman finally tired of being dragged around the country and doling out support for a shiftless husband. Thats a movie Im more inclined to watch. But in Wildlifes hands, and in Danos, Jeanette is forced to re-arrange herself again and again, overhauling her character to suit each scene. It must be exhausting.

I, too, felt a little tired after Wildlife, a soporific, if stylish, account of yet another straight, white couple coming apart. Dano shows technical promise as a director, but I hope his taste in material has a bit more range. Now that hes gotten a rather passionless passion project out of his system, hopefully hell lift his gaze up in search of other, more vibrant lives—out there in the vastness, hungry for perfect lighting.

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Nine Exclusive New Outlander Season 4 ImagesRichard LawsonRichard Lawson is the chief critic for Vanity Fair, reviewing film, television, and theatre. He lives in New York City.

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