The Plot: Jacob (George MacKay) has been admitted to a specialist institution, as he believes that he’s a wolf and displays animalistic behaviour. There, he meets other young people who also believe that they’re a variety of animals including Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp) and German Shepherd (Fionn O’Shea). This is species dysphoria, something which The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine) is intent on forcing out of them and thereby curing them of their apparent identity crisis. But when his authority meets strong resistance from Jacob, The Zookeeper must resort to shock tactics…
The Verdict: When the trailer for Irish film Wolf was released late last year, it caused a bit of a stir online – which can only be a good thing for a film that’s worth talking about. The IMDb describes it as a high-concept arthouse drama about a boy who believes he is a wolf. There’s a lot more to it than that basic logline, in the way it deals with identity and how it evolves in these animalistic characters over the course of the film. It’s almost like a werewolf film in reverse, but with no hair and fangs as a strong-willed young man gets in touch with his inner wolf and then adapts it to his own unique human characteristics – or is it the other way around? Writer-director Nathalie Biancheri will keep you guessing right up to the closing shot. She follows up her previous film Nocturnal with an even more distinctive film that focuses on identity, instinct and the mental and intellectual battleground between authority and youthful free will.
Biancheri got the idea for the film after reading an article about a woman with species dysphoria or species identity disorder, not quite identifying as human but believing that she was born to be a particular animal. She then developed it into a seemingly conventional narrative involving an institutional setting, with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest being a touchpoint in the way the story unfolds. This is taking the concept of an inner spirit animal to another realm and becoming unconventional in the narrative process. When originality is something that is becoming increasingly rare in cinema these days, this is an approach to be applauded by a director taking risks and a studio (Universal) unusually encouraging her to do so. There are some mental hurdles and leaps in audience imagination here to get to the point where the story becomes credible. However, Biancheri does so in a subtle, engaging and often humourous way.
Part of the film’s success is down to how it portrays the characters with species dysphoria. They act out their inner animals with and without props, snarling around each other but not actually lashing out in a violent way. Jacob howls at the moon and stalks around Wildcat on all fours sizing her up. They’re not flying their freak flag, they’re getting in touch with who they really are. The real violence and lack of control comes from the staff, as The Zookeeper encourages one character who thinks she’s a bird to jump out of a window. The brutalist structure of the institution (actually the Deer Park Hotel in Howth) has an authoritarian impression and becomes a character in itself – a place to escape from. The cast work well to portray their characters, moving beyond amateur ‘be a tree’ theatrics to instead embrace who their characters really are. It helps that the filmmakers engaged movement specialist Terry Notary from The Planet Of The Apes series to add authenticity. It ultimately becomes less of a film about species dysphoria and more about finding an actual identity, whatever that may be. That’s something we can all identify with in our youthful rebellion.
In all likelihood, Wolf won’t be for everyone. The closest cinematic spirit animal to it is The Lobster, but Wolf is very much its own thing and is content to run wild through the woods with its high concept and howl forlornly and defiantly at the moon. A werewolf film that isn’t quite a werewolf film, a quasi-horror film in which the real horror comes from the human behaviour of the caretakers rather than animalistic behaviour. There’s a lot to take in here, but you might have a howl of a good time figuring it all out as it washes over you like a midnight fever dream.