Written and Directed by Nathalie Biancheri
Starring George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Eileen Walsh, Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew
While I relate much of Nathalie Bianchen’s “Wolf” to elements and characters from Milos Forman’s (and by extension, Ken Kesey’s) “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it occurred to me that elements from Gene Roddenberry’s original pilot, ‘The Cage’ could equally apply. Both properties exhibit an observant view of humanity when locked up in a cage and a mortal fight for dominance.
Biancheri’s original screenplay sees Jacob (George MacKay, “1917”) freshly installed at an isolated clinic called “the zoo.” Jacob believes he is a wolf trapped in a human body; an aspect that is seen as well as felt. He, along with the other ‘animals,’ is under the watchful eye of the Zookeeper, played by Paddy Considine.
Jacob is voluntarily admitted to the clinic, a brightly lit space in a forest. The remainder of its inhabitants, Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), Parrott (Lola Petticrew), Duck (Senan Jennings), Lion Man (Terry Notary), German Shepard (Fionn O’Shea), Horse (Ela Fionuir), and Almost Out (Leo Hanna) roam the rooms of “the zoo,” interacting, often violently, with one another. The staff is there to help the teens overcome their species dysphoria, however, more is afoul than is presented on the story’s surface.
Jacob is the only character with a given name in the film. Much like Randle McMurphy, he enters with a human identity. Slowly, the wolf side of him is brought to the surface. Interestingly, Biancheri opens the film with Jacob’s wolf form, sullen, threatening.
“Wolf” is more of a dramatic thriller with horror elements, rather than the reverse, and in the various stages that the “animals” are in, neither part plays entirely out. It is, thus, up to the characters to carry the story, and that is where “Wolf” succeeds.
Biancheri places us in an observant role, ala ‘The Cage’ reference; we bear witness to the events of the film without a great deal of feeling toward either side. We certainly recoil at the horrors presented on the screen, unlike “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” We sneer at the Zookeeper’s menacing and antagonizing methods and cheer for Wolf as Jacob takes what the Zookeeper dishes, much the same as we do with McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.
MacKay and Considine appear to be relishing in the other’s performance, feeding off each other, which makes for an exciting dichotomy amid a clinical setting. There is very little respect between the two as they try to gain dominance over the other.
Cinematographer Michal Dymek uses the clinical background statically, allowing the framing to focus on the animal character’s movements within the frame, offering appropriate jump scares when the characters are appropriately motivated. Daylight and darkness are critical to the character’s emotions, and reactions to their surrounding environment, combined with subliminal imagery used to explore the sedate violence endemic of the animal kingdom they are a part of. The staff interacts with the animals more frequently than the Zookeeper, but they are no less threatening. German Shepard is the most interesting; his journey is the polar opposite of Wolf’s, displaying what is and isn’t possible with treatment.
“Wolf” doesn’t wholly work; its character mechanics work for it, its story mechanics work against it; however, the psychological methods are interesting. Much the same as the rebellious nature with which “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” operates, similar principles apply to “Wolf”: the inhumane treatment with which their animalistic tendencies are brought out shocks and the attempts at control exerted raise questions about the treatment of animals in general. Jacob’s entry into this world is about bringing the pack together, yet he is left with a choice, reflected through a brilliantly framed shot between him and Depp, who is stunning as Wildcat; the natural brilliance behind Nathalie Biancheri’s observant tome.
Now in theaters, “Wolf” sparks interest in treating species dysphoria and examines nature’s dominant control.
R, 98 minutes, Focus Features