Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
“Wolf” is billed as “a high-concept arthouse drama about a boy who believes he is a wolf.” That line is factually accurate, but its initially provocative concept is all the film has going for it.
The story features “1917” star George MacKay as Jacob, a young man shipped off to a rehab facility to treat his unique disorder, termed “species dysphoria.” His loving parents just want him to overcome his inner beast. And he’s not alone.
The unique facility houses a boy who thinks he’s a dog, a girl who believes she’s a bird, another who takes on the persona of a squirrel, and so on. Therapy places these pretend creatures in an artificial indoor park where patients get playtime. They are even permitted costuming privileges. But Jacob doesn’t don fur; he’s got his animal coursing through his veins.
The institution is run by a brutal man only referred to as The Zookeeper (played by Paddy Considine), whose approach to therapy is wholly dehumanizing. The parents only see the kind, gentle side of the man. It’s when the children are left in his private care that his inner beast roams freely.
If only The Zookeeper’s creature side proved to be terrifying. Unfortunately, writer/director Nathalie Biancheri doesn’t go far enough. Don’t expect any supernatural elements; Biancheri’s narrative keeps its feet firmly grounded. The focus is on debasing therapy at the hands of a ruthless psychoanalyst. And while there are shades of 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Biancheri can’t find a way to balance her initially edgy ideas with horrifying conversion therapy realities.
So, “Wolf” devolves into sadomasochistic cosplay masquerading as a thinly veiled social commentary on gender identity crises. It’s almost comical to see the great actor Paddy Considine bearing his teeth and viciously growling at the sensitive patients. What could have been a tension-filled sequence gets unintended chuckles. There’s just no acute sense of danger, nor does the story embrace its potentially supernatural tease.
If the idea is that human beings, as opposed to other animals, respond best to negative reinforcement, why then are the patients allowed to dress and act as their chosen beast? We do not get any sense that the facility has a scientific approach that approximates a medical standard.
Sure, the central conceit is that conversion therapy is utter nonsense, and I completely get that notion. But because the disorder is so fantastic and foreign, it’s hard to convince viewers that a human being shouldn’t be dissuaded from becoming the wild creature they imagine themselves to be. A little beast might be okay, but should Jacob be permitted to endanger others in a human society by adopting the ways of the wolf?
Tolerance is one thing, but Jacob shouldn’t be allowed to attack others while cavorting about as a dangerous wild animal. This perilous decision would conflict with maintaining order in what is often called “civilized” culture. What this movie desperately needed was more context.
What if people live like wolves, dogs, birds, and squirrels in this version of Earth? What if competing therapies tamed the beasts, and the two groups could co-exist peacefully?
To that end, actor Terry Notary appears as a caged Lion Man. Notary’s presence is telling because perhaps his most memorable screen appearance is in the 2017 film “The Square,” where he terrorizes a dinner party in the persona of an ape. It’s a thrilling highlight in that movie, and Biancheri sadly underuses his talents.
MacKay’s work is intense as he manipulates his muscular frame, capably walking on all fours. And Johnny Depp’s talented daughter Lily-Rose Depp plays another inmate identified as Wildcat. Often slinking around at night, Wildcat visits Jacob beckoning him to venture out on natural adventures. She knows all the secrets of the place, and she’s armed with a key to almost every door.
These two potential interspecies lovers are somewhat like the ill-fated couples in Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 chiller “Cat People,” stylishly remade with Paul Schrader at the helm in 1982. But aside from an awkward scene involving relations between jail cell bars, their romantic chemistry, whether explicitly physical or emotionally potent, is lacking. And it’s a little odd that these two just happen to be the most attractive young people in the joint. If casting is going to go in this direction, it would have helped if the story fully palpably embraced this romance.
Unfortunately, Biancheri depicts Wildcat as either truly disturbed or the product of an institutional upbringing. This ambiguous background isn’t concrete enough for audiences to engage with the character or her plight. It’s frustrating because the talented Depp can display more than one dimension, and MacKay’s sensitive portrayal would match a more nuanced development.
Inscrutable plot elements leave “Wolf” a confusing oddity that fails to build on its “high-concept” promise.