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Wildlife

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking.

Theater: Uptown.

Paul Dano graduates from being a notably talented actor to a new level of importance in his first film as a director. With this clear-eyed, handsomely composed and well-considered family drama, he must be regarded as an up-and-coming filmmaker of impressive potential. The film, which he and Zoe Kazan adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, is a jewel of eloquent understatement.

Ed Oxenbould plays Joe Brinson, a 14-year-old Everykid who watches carefully and tries to interpret quietly as his financially struggling family falls apart. Jake Gyllenhaal as his father Jerry and Carey Mulligan as his mother Jeanette offer him role models of a complicated sort. Each means well, but both struggle against immature impulses. Jerry’s childish nature keeps his employment, and the family’s location, in a worrying spin. Jeanette’s self-centered frame of mind pushes her away from meaningful personal commitments.

Making the best of their situation, they maintain a candy-coated, Ozzie and Harriet mood for their son. Their inner feelings become less private when Jerry loses another job and suddenly joins their Montana county’s hired help fighting a dangerous forest fire nearby. Jeanette, careworn and anxious, begins quiet late-night meetings with a local businessman in ways that Joe can’t help but notice. The difficult consequences play out with the incisive humanity of a Hemingway novella, with faults punished painfully, but not so severely as to kill all possibility of hope.

Dano guides his cast to playing each stressed character in individual, carefully harmonized tones, the kind of acting that throbs with emotions held in check. Oxenbould, working as our point of view, embodies levels of longing and doubt that will undoubtedly bring viewers to recollections of similar grief. Gyllenhaal operates at his usual high standard of excellence, making Jerry the cause of his own distress, and playing his troubled wife gives the always breathtaking Mulligan one of her richest roles. It’s demanding to play a committed parent who is also an adulterer so miserable that she’s near suicide, but she makes it look elementary.

Colin Covert

Monster Party

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Unrated but includes bloody violence.

Theater: AMC Apple Valley.

Part home-invasion crime thriller and part horror movie, writer/director Chris von Hoffmann’s high-speed thriller plays like “Home Alone” from the burglars’ perspective, with short, clever detours into class politics and flashes of goofy tension relief.

When three teenage thieves sneak into a Malibu mansion disguised as servers for a dinner gala, the victims aren’t trapped inside with the criminals. The crooks are locked in with the guests. Jammed among the other bloody movies crammed into this season, this is a notable standout. It could give you nightmares in the middle of the day.

Smart thieves Iris (Virginia Gardner), Dodge (Brandon Michael Hall) and Casper (Sam Strike) are compromised yet sympathetic. Two of them are expecting a baby in seven months. The other one needs a lot of money fast to rescue his degenerate-gambler father from likely murder over a big debt. We learn just enough about them to make us invest in them emotionally when small, unexpected revelations about the wealthy family and their evening guests begin to swing the moral arc back and forth.

Who’s morally in the clear? Nobody, which keeps us teetering off balance. As the body count begins to push aside everything you are mentally prepared for, it’s like feeling constant punches to the face. And they’re not even started yet.

A case study in how to make a crisply shot, proficiently edited, impressively screwed up murder express on the cheap, almost everything about this makes me happy. Its connection to intense predecessors like “Don’t Breathe,” “Green Room” and even “Pulp Fiction” are clear and used unflinchingly. Like Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

C.C.

Museo

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: Not rated; in English and subtitled Spanish.

Theater: St. Anthony Main.

On Christmas Eve 1985, thieves broke into the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and stole nearly 150 Mayan artifacts. That robbery is reconstructed in Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film, but not quite in the usual based-on-a-true-story heist-movie manner. Slow-moving and grand, with lush music and elegant widescreen compositions, it feels less like a thriller than a poetic, intermittently comic meditation on beauty, history and middle-class disaffection.

The crime is the work not of a gang of criminal geniuses, but of a pair of underachieving suburban 20-somethings — Benjamin (Leonardo Ortizgris), the narrator and sidekick, and Juan (Gael García Bernal), the mastermind. What’s remarkable, at least at first, is how easy the caper turns out to be. In the absence of motion detectors or effective security cameras, all that’s required is a modicum of stealth and coordination. A priceless bundle of cultural patrimony vanishes into the night.

The problem is what to do with the loot. Once the robbery makes the news, it sparks public outrage and indignation. The thieves head south, turning the movie into a bouncy, farcical road trip. But it also deepens the film’s slyly patriotic subtext. The story of a pair of clumsy criminals becomes a pretext for celebrating the beauty and complexity of Mexico’s landscape and history. Despite a meandering story and some fuzzy passages, there is a touch of magic in “Museo,” a sense of wonder and curiosity that imparts palpable excitement.

A.O. Scott, New York Times