In the first act of Wolf, it’s sometimes unclear whether writer-director Nathalie Biancheri wants the audience to laugh or cry. The film’s core premise — a young man who believes himself to be a wolf undergoes therapy at a clinic — could lend itself to dark humor à la The Lobster (2015). We watch a literal horse girl prance and neigh while an eager-to-please boy earnestly proclaims, “I used to believe I was a German Shepherd.” Soon, however, the desperation of their existential plight becomes clear, even though awkward moments point toward attempts at humor. Despite these variances in tone, Biancheri’s drama generally treats these people with empathy and gentleness. But unfortunately, Wolf fails at evoking much emotion in its audience.
Jacob (George MacKay) dreams of living like a wolf, loping naked along the vibrant green forest floor as leaves rustle and light streams through the trees — both gorgeously captured in Michal Fojcik’s sound design and Michal Dymek’s cinematography. His real life is far drabber, as he stares out the window in a bland room with an empty expression. When his parents drop him off at a treatment center for species identity disorder, his mother (Helen Behan) begs him, “Promise me you’ll try.” Initially, he appears to be on the more “normal” side of the patients’ spectrum in the clinic’s rooms that encourage animal play (props to Joe Fallover’s production design). There’s a girl who thinks she is a parrot (Lola Petticrew), who wears bright red feathers and a beak, and a would-be squirrel (Darragh Shannon) gives himself a nasty injury while the celebrated Dr. Mann, aka The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine), berates him into trying to climb a tree.
However, while the daylight version of Jacob promises that he doesn’t want to be a wolf, his true self emerges and escapes from his room nightly. He stalks down the empty corridors on all fours, where he encounters Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp, perfectly cast for the feline angles of her face), who encourages him to howl into the dark. They form an intimate connection in their animal forms, but Dr. Mann blurs the lines between therapy and abuse in his attempts to push them and the other patients toward human behavior. The Zookeeper continually espouses the superiority of humans, but all the benefits of consciousness contrast with Mann’s — and man’s — capacity for cruelty.
Wolf holds together due to MacKay’s almost purely physical performance. Other than his growls and howls, Jacob is largely taciturn, requiring an incredible bodily commitment to the role. He does a bear crawl whose form would please even the pickiest of fitness instructors. Terry Notary (who also has a small on-screen part in the film) served as movement choreographer, and the result looks like something out of a David Attenborough documentary series. Mackay snarls and sniffs, and his gait is eerily lupine. Whether in 1917 or True History of the Kelly Gang, he always does authentic, attention-drawing work, but this raw performance still feels like an evolution for the talented actor. His character challenges assumptions and doesn’t invite affection, but he still gains our compassion throughout his trauma at the hands of the Zookeeper.
Despite the impressive performance at its heart, Wolf’s off-putting approach still keeps its audience at a remove. Biancheri’s script and direction have a coldness and detachment that fit the film if you view it as a modern-day fable (or if you see those with species identity disorder as incapable of human emotion), but it all keeps the audience from fully engaging with the experiences of those on screen. Biancheri never fully fleshes out its characters and concept more thoroughly, even while the visuals and acting create a world that promises more than the script delivers.
Biancheri’s film never fully coalesced for me, but there’s still a lot to like and recommend here. By its nature and inventive premise, this isn’t the type of film that will be widely seen, but MacKay’s performance and the craft visible on screen elevate it into something interesting.
“Wolf” is out Friday in theaters.