TIFF 2021: Wolf Review

Crossbreed Jodie Foster’s star vehicle Nell with S1m0ne’s character study I Am Pig and the result is Wolf. George MacKay goes full Jodie Foster playing a young man who identifies as a wolf. It’s a wild performance. However, where Foster won accolades for her turnas a feral hermit, MacKay might find himself eating from the trough like the simulated S1m0ne. This peculiar film from Nathalie Biancheri has all the ingredients to be a full-fledged star vehicle. However, Wolf’s study of “species dysphoria”—a condition whereby humans identify as animals—is simply too silly and tonally uneven to do justice to any performance. It’s one of the year’s strangest films.

MacKay, the rising star who asserted himself in Captain Fantastic and 1917, actually gets some moments to shine. Biancheri peppers Wolf with hypnotic interludes that see MacKay’s Jacob roam through the woods on all fours. MacKay delivers some mean pup play in Wolf when the film lets him get his paws dirty. He has great physical presence as a performer as Michał Dyme’s cinematography hugs his sinewy, muscular frame. MacKay uncannily evokes the lean and mean build of a ferocious lupus. He howls with a gravelly mix of pain and pride, unleashing the beast within with each Awooooooo!

 

Wolf in the Zoo

While Wolf shows ample potential in its carnal and physical interpretation of species dysphoria, it struggles to portray the treatment. Jacob finds himself at a hospital for young people in the same condition. There are other pups, but also a parrot, a duck, a squirrel, a wildcat, and a horse. (Some of the animal interpretations are impossible to decode, however, without the patients informing us of their specifies.) The patients at “the zoo” find themselves at the mercy of a mad doctor, “the Zookeeper,” played by an overwrought Paddy Considine. The Zookeeper treats the patients with highly unorthodox behaviour. His methodology includes immersing them in urban noise and providing iPads to learn “human” behaviour. He suggests they’ll feel more human by connecting to technology rather than with nature–although the zoo is oddly surrounded by a verdant forest that the Zookeeper often incorporates into treatment.

However, the Zookeeper also happens to be a full-blown Nurse Ratched quack. He brutalizes the patients with exercises that further dehumanize them. For example, he makes the squirrel-boy climb up a tree until his fingernails break. He nearly sends the parrot girl careening out a window. Jacob and other pups find themselves tethered to choke chains. The human elements of Wolf are where the drama strains credibility.

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Wolf Not Quite a Howler

The Zookeeper’s antagonist behaviour admittedly betrays Biancheri’s research on her subject, as Wolf is more speculative than authentic. (During the TIFF Q&A, the director admitted to doing only superficial research on the treatment.) The Zookeeper’s tyrannical brutality breaks the suspension of disbelief one needs to accept the interplay between human and non-human animals. Wolf ultimately plays like an actor’s workshop: there are good performances, but one never forgets that one is watching actors act. Moreover, the Zookeeper’s abusive methods might have played better in a period drama. Wolf could have filled its logical gaps simply by setting the story during an era in which the understanding and treatment of psychology was still a work in progress.

The zoo itself is weirdly anachronistic as Jacob and his fellow patient Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp) roam the halls freely. Security comes and goes as Wolf and Wildcat test interspecies compatibility. The adventures afford some hypnotically animalistic interludes in which MacKay and Depp explore one another through sniffs and grunts. Wolf doesn’t go full furry, though. The question of fetish never arises despite the bestial overtones that pant throughout. Again, there’s a lot of potential in the film’s animal urges.

There’s an opportunity here to unpack interspecies relations and humans’ responsibility to non-human animals, but Wolf ultimately collapses under its One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ambitions. When the animals finally roar, it’s to the tune of Umberto Tozzi and Giancarlo Bigazzi’s Gloria. The uprising is more silly than compelling. At this point, one can only cackle like a hyena.

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