Written and Directed by Nathalie Biancheri.
Starring George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Senan Jennings, Darragh Shannon, Elisa Fionuir, Amy Macken, Helen Behan, Karise Yansen, and Eileen Walsh.
A high-concept arthouse drama about a boy who believes he is a wolf.
Written and directed by Nathalie Biancheri, Wolf, in theory, should be a prepackaged empathy lesson on species dysmorphia (which, to be clear, has nothing to do with being a furry or anything sexually deviant). It stars George MacKay as Jacob, a young man unloaded off by his disapproving parents to a rehabilitation center for various individuals that take the idea of a spirit animal a bit too far. Jacob’s parents want him to get better, and temporarily, we share the sentiment, considering how bizarre the notion of believing one is an animal is for most of society. A flash of dark humor with a woman fully decked out in a colorful parrot outfit repeating dialogue from the therapist also sets an amusingly dark tone.
Such initially disarming jokes make way for some truly reprehensible behavior coming from the headmaster of this institution, Paddy Considine’s menacing Zookeeper. His curative methods seemingly involve placing a person into a situation or environment that forces them to bring out animalistic abilities that a human being does not possess; someone that believes they are squirrel is scolded into climbing a tree like one, the parrot woman is terrorized into jumping out a window to see if she can fly, and collars are applied to doglike humans.
In the case of Jacob, who remains defiant and in tune with his wolf alter (and also in control, demonstrating that he can snap out of it if someone feels frightened), he is met with increasingly inhumane punishments of solitary confinement and torture. During the quiet hours of the night, Jacob also befriends Lily-Rose Depp’s Wildcat, a feline woman of similar age who is afforded special access across the facility for plot convenience.
A tender bond begins to develop as the characters discuss potential traumatic incidents behind their species dysmorphia or further get into animal spirituality, tempting and coming on to one another in what is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive sequences of intimacy in a long time. George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp also sell the hell out of the animalistic movements and contortions on all fours, having been coached by the excellent motion capture artist Terry Notary.
As a mood piece and vessel for remarkable performances, tasking actors with searching for something truly strange within, Wolf is undeniably intriguing. The issue is that Nathalie Biancheri is on the fence regarding what kind of statement she wants to send about species dysmorphia. There’s a point where the film seems to walk back some of that empathy by implying that maybe Jacob is a threat when assuming the physical identity of a wolf, even if it’s made clear that the torture inflicted upon him is abusive and morally wrong.
The rest of the characters seem to be treated only as punchlines for black humor, and occasionally more dangerous than necessary, which further questions the goal. On top of that, the species dysmorphia itself appears to be an exaggerated presentation that would diminish a message if there was one.
Wolf also gets caught up in the crazed Zookeeper’s cruel psychology methods and Jacob’s isolation that the brewing romance loses focus on its more compelling aspects. Somewhere in here is a highly disturbing flick about society’s lack of acceptance, but it’s mainly content to function as acting vehicles in every which direction; humans poetically mimicking animals and dialed-up turns from psychopathic doctors.
It’s a shame Wolf has nothing definitive to howl about species dysmorphia, although it’s arguably as visually hypnotic as staring at a crimson moon.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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