Wolf (Ireland/U.K., 2021)

December 02, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wolf Poster

What happens when a movie is so strongly allegorical that it works only in the abstract? To a degree, that’s the case with Wolf. Viewed from the straightforward perspective of a narrative-based motion picture, writer/director Nathalie Biancheri’s sophomore feature never gains traction. There are some interesting ideas but it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to the characters or the situation the more obviously divorced from reality things become.

Wolf focuses on an institution where a form of conversion therapy takes place for individuals suffering from “species dysphoria” (no attempt is made to hide the fact that this is a stand-in for “gender dysphoria”). Individuals are brought here by loved-ones (typically parents) to cure them of their inner belief that they are animals trapped in human bodies. The “zookeepers,” therapists gamely played by Paddy Considine and Eileen Walsh, are tasked with ridding them of this “illusion,” getting them in touch with their humanity, and allowing them to eventually lead normal, productive lives. Based on all available evidence, they don’t have a high success rate, so one wonders how they manage to stay in business. That’s one of the little things that Biancheri isn’t concerned because details are often irrelevant in allegories. Wolf is about how people often mistreat those who live outside the norms of society. It’s about homophobia and transphobia.

Enter Jacob (George MacKay), who believes deep-down that he’s a wolf. MacKay’s performance is interesting. Some might consider it over-the-top but it’s evident that he has studied wolves and this comes through in the physical aspects of his acting. I could see him in a new version of The Island of Doctor Moreau. He is brought to the clinic by his parents and, at least to start with, he seems sincere in trying to become normal. Surrounded by other people/animals – a German Shepherd, a parrot, a duck, a squirrel, a horse, and a spider – he slowly begins to backslide. The process accelerates when he meets Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a longtime resident (not necessarily a patient) of the clinic who encourages him to frolic after dark. They fall in love and that’s where the trouble starts.

Wolf is too busy worried about maintaining its strict allegorical underpinning to spend time and energy on the love story. And, when the movie seems to be headed into Doctor Moreau territory, it pulls back, leaving the viewer without the satisfaction of a real ending. What happens to the characters after the final few scenes? Who knows? The film is about the theme of the outsider finding peace through self-acceptance. That’s a good message but it makes for a disappointing movie.

Another underdeveloped idea is that once someone has been imprisoned for a long time, they may recoil from the demands of real freedom. It’s a concept that The Shawshank Redemption addressed with far greater success. Here, one of the animals, when given an opportunity to escape, becomes terrified of the consequences. Faced with the unknowns of the outside world, with its prejudices and requirements (like making money), the idea of remaining in the compound offers an unexpected appeal. Unfortunately, Wolf doesn’t have time to go down this road; its presentation is perfunctory – a little gristle to chew on without much meat.

I found Wolf to be a frustrating experience. Although I’m sympathetic with many of the things Biancheri has to say, this is more of a bizarre 96-minute sermon than a real motion picture. The world-building is inadequate and the storyline is erratic. Many who come to care about Jacob and Wildcat may feel betrayed by how the filmmakers ultimately treat them. There are some good performances here, with MacKay and Depp effectively embodying the characteristics of their animals and Paddy Considine doing his best to show a little sympathy beneath his sadistic exterior. But the movie as a whole doesn’t work.

Wolf (Ireland/U.K., 2021)

Director: Nathalie Biancheri
Cast: George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Eileen Walsh
Screenplay: Nathalie Biancheri
Cinematography: Michal Dymek
Music: Stefan Wesolowki
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2021-12-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1