Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 3rd, 2021
Wolf (Nathalie Biancheri, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
If one were to rate writer/director Nathalie Biancheri’s new film, Wolf, solely on the merits of star George MacKay’s performance, then it would deserve high praise, indeed. As a young man convinced he is really the titular animal in human clothing, MacKay (1917) delivers a mesmerizing turn, especially as he prowls the halls of the institution to which his parents send him, lupine grace in every movement. Unfortunately, there is more to the story than just him, and not all elements (nor all actors) are created equal. The initial premise may fascinate, but its development quickly goes to the dogs.
Jacob (MacKay) suffers from species dysphoria, and he is far from alone. His fellow patients all believe they should be something else, from dogs to squirrels to cats and more. Overseen by a sadistic head doctor known as “the zookeeper” (Paddy Considine, How to Build a Girl), the hospital features a veritable menagerie of would-be beasts, savage and tame, struggling in a program designed to remind them of their identity as homo sapiens. No amount of therapy proves effective for very long, and the call of the wild rings powerful.
Once inside the walls of what amounts to an asylum, Jacob meets a young woman who goes by Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp, Silent Night), similarly afflicted. She has been there for a while, and appears personally connected (as daughter? sister?) to one of the main caretakers (Eileen Walsh, Made in Italy). Whatever her true role, she shows Jacob the ropes, even offering him a place to howl at night. And slowly, something akin to a relationship (of the interspecies variety) blossoms. Will they help each other learn to accept their true selves and/or learn to pass as regular people? Perhaps.
If only things were that simple. Sadly, Biancheri (Nocturnal) never finds a way to progress the narrative beyond the obvious metaphor of gender and sexual identity under attack from conversion therapy. She also writes herself into a dramatic corner with her ending, more disturbing questions raised than answered. Still, her ambitions are laudable, and there are a few engaging scenes within.
Almost of all these center around Jacob. MacKay is a wonder, his lean body perfectly in sync with the part. He is clearly human, yet we believe the animal within, at least until the dialogue gets in the way. When he is silently in motion, or emitting his moving cry into the night sky, we can almost imagine that the roles are reversed, and that we witness an actual wolf doing his best impression of a man. In those moments, there is true magic in the air.