This is a tough one to classify and an even tougher one to analyze, but ultimately a fulfilling one to view. The latest from Nocturnal director Nathalie Biancheri, Wolf tells the story of a young man named Jacob (George MacKay, 1917), whose parents open the film by dropping him off at a clinic that appears to specialize to treating young people who believe they are various animals, with Jacob eating, sleeping, and living like a wolf (and often involves him running naked around the woods by his home). At the clinic, he’s surrounded by other kids and young adults who believe they are birds, spiders, dogs, horses, and squirrels. The therapy they’re all receiving involves indulging their beliefs for a time, until the time comes for the sadistic head therapist (Paddy Considine, known only as the Zookeeper) to break them of their tendencies using extreme forms of curative treatment.
Part of the fascinating quality about Wolf is simply watching these young actors, especially MacKay, transform their body language into that of their chosen animal. I’m fairly certain that real animal sounds are mixed in with the actors’ voices when they are at their most animalistic, but for the most part, it’s all about performance, and MacKay’s wolf movements are terrifying at times, graceful at others.
One night, Jacob meets a young woman named Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), and it’s difficult at first to determine if she works at the clinic or is a patient. She seems to have free rein of the facility, but she also believes she’s a wildcat, a fact she’d rather keep secret from the staff. The two go out on the grounds at night, and she even knows where to take him where he can howl at the moon without danger of getting caught. They form a strong bond, which quickly turns into a deep affection. But since the Zookeeper punishes any animalistic behavior at a certain point in his process, Jacob still getting to act wild at night, unbeknownst to the Zookeeper, screws up his therapy plans and makes him quite angry as a result.
To punish Jacob for his naked acts of defiance, he’s bound and gagged in a cage and treated in a way none of the parents who sent their kids to this place would find acceptable. But there comes a certain point where he must decide whether to choose staying with Wildcat, who is too afraid to leave the facility, or escaping and living out his foreseeable future as a wolf in the wild. I tried to tell you this was a weird one, but the actors in Wolf are so committed to these mostly staggering performances, it’s very easy to feel their fear, pain, and struggle without too much effort.
I’m not sure director Biancheri goes quite as far as to draw parallels between her characters and more common examples of people who feel trapped in the wrong body, but she comes dangerously close, and I’m not quite sure the metaphor would work, but I’m probably not the one to ask. That doesn’t keep the film from being any less intriguing. It certainly did make me wonder about people who do have this condition and how they are properly treated, but the film doesn’t feel like its purpose is education. In the end, Wolf is interesting because of the performances and not the messages.
The film opens theatrically on Friday.
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