In Wolf, George MacKay plays Jacob, a young man who thinks that he’s a wolf. No, not a werewolf, but an actual wolf. He is aware of his human body, but his internal identity is that of a wild dog. A braver writer would explore what this means in terms of self-identity, but a shlub like me will have to stop at simple comparison — What I mean is that there may be a trans allegory here that I am not ready to touch, but the way Jacob’s situation is depicted is one of dysphoria, not of magical realism. Through this depiction, the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief is well-purchased, and the setting, that of a treatment facility for youngsters who identify as animals, enters the real world. I have no idea if such diagnoses are a real-world thing, but in the movie it is played as if this is the case (the setting is much more Cuckoo’s Nest than it is The Lobster).
While in the facility Jacob meets Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a young woman who believes herself to be, well, a wild cat. The two slowly fall for each other (no, they do not sniff each other’s butts when they meet), but their identities are called into question. While they both bond over their shared delusion, the only way they can ever be free enough to have a relationship is to be “cured” of it. So what’s a wolf to do?
They are not alone in the facility either. There’s a whole roster of patients, and each and every one of them has an animal identity that they are trying to purge. There are two caretakers leading the charge. One of them, played here by Eileen Walsh, takes a somewhat holistic approach, engaging the patients in games to help shift their perspective. The other, known as “The Zookeeper,” uses a harsher method. Played here to slimy perfection by Paddy Considine, the Zookeeper prefers to confront the illogic of his patients’ maladies head on, going so far as to invite one of them to jump out a window to prove that she is indeed a parrot. While I don’t know enough about psychology to speak to the proposed effectiveness of such technique, within the text of the movie, it’s made very clear that neither of these practices garner lasting results, and one of them is certainly inhumane.
As such, the delineation between good and evil is drawn quite clearly, but it’s also made apparent that the patent ridiculousness of the central concept is much of what leads to treatment failure. It’s important for a doctor to show confidence in their diagnoses and treatments, but often times the novelty of whatever sickness they’re fighting means limited information, which in turn means incomplete treatment. Better to do something with what we know than to do nothing at all, right?
Well, I don’t know, and neither do any of the characters in the film. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t seem to have much to say in this regard. While there is something thematically strong to be said about the gathering of information in place of empty action, this idea is only danced around, and may even just be me projecting my own ideas onto the slate. This isn’t to say that the film has nothing to say, just that by the end, I was unsure of any inherent messaging and haven’t really felt the pull to think about it in the days since. Certainly the film does not owe us a didactic explanation of what it’s about, but as it stands, it does feel slightly undercooked.
But as a shell for great performances, Wolf succeeds grandly. MacKay has already proven himself to be an exciting new performer (if you haven’t seen True History of The Kelly Gang, please do), and his tremendous ability is put into full force here. It’s the kind of role that many actors would editorialize from within, thus softening the character and making the viewer laugh at cartoonish pleas for an award of sorts. But in the hands of MacKay, Jacob comes across as a real person. He’s as confused by his mental state as anyone else, and his desire to be “cured” is as genuine as can be from a person stuck between identities. He’s so good that I don’t mind the fact that a man who thinks he’s a wolf would, for some reason, have absolutely no body hair. Yes, I get that Mackay is climbing the list of youthful sex symbols, and his marketable attractiveness is baked into the performance here, but as a man who was once nicknamed “Lobo” by his coworkers on account of his hairiness, I can confidently say tell that no self-identified wolf is interested in razors.
This is not a knock against the movie, however. This is just me being silly. Another instance of me being silly is the fact that Lily-Rose Depp looks so much like her father, specifically as he did in Secret Window, that I found myself often distracted when she was on screen. This is unfair to her since she gives a wonderful performance, but I am a broken man whose girlfriend created a one woman show all about Johnny Depp, so his image exists in the periphery of my life at all times now. Sorry Lily, but I guess this is your penance for Yoga Hosers.
Directed by Nathalie Biancheri
Written by Nathalie Biancheri
Starring Lily-Rose Depp, George MacKay, Paddy Considine, Eileen Walsh
Rated R, 98 minutes