The apocalyptic anxiety of our present sociopolitical moment is the not-so-hidden undergirding of Alistair Banks Griffin’s psychodrama “The Wolf Hour,” in which Naomi Watts plays June Leigh, a fearful author who’s isolated herself from the outside world by holing up in her fifth-floor South Bronx walk-up.
But it’s not 2019, when even the most dedicated of hermits can feel connected to others through the Internet. Griffin’s analog setting is the summer of 1977, when New York’s then-notorious version of urban decay had segments of the city ready to ignite, while a steady stream of news about “The .44 Caliber Killer” — a female-targeting serial murderer soon to be known as “Son of Sam” — had single women on edge, especially those with long, dark hair, like June’s.
But despite a typically committed performance by Watts, once again showing her special affinity for hard-edged sufferers grinding out a way to survive, and an aura of the familiar and off-putting (reminiscent of Griffin’s 2010 indie debut “Two Gates of Sleep”), “The Wolf Hour” struggles to justify its increasingly grating moodiness. It doesn’t work up much steam, neither as a single-location paranoid thriller nor as an especially revealing character study of self-imposed, jittery confinement.
Initially, though, the sickly green, Fincher-ish tinge to Khalid Mohtaseb’s cinematography — which captures the thin film of sweat on Watts and the pungent layer of neglect over everything in June’s apartment (formerly her grandmother’s, the previous tenant) — and the ambient sound design hold the tense promise of an intriguing dive into a worried mind. Outside, the Bronx rattles, moans and yells, while inside, in dim light, we can hear the buzz of flies, but more urgently, to June’s fragile sensibility, the sinister crackle of her intercom, as if someone is desperate to get inside her building. Whenever she tries to answer it, though, no one seems to be there, just distortion and faint talking. Is this a prank? Or is she imagining it?
June’s interactions with detectable humans, on the other hand, amount to prickly exchanges built around necessity. She can shove money under the door when rent is due, but when the grocery store sends a new delivery kid, Freddie (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., “Assassination Nation”), her guard goes up, especially when he asks if he can use her bathroom. She’s not crazy about having to accept her sister Margot (Jennifer Ehle) as a concerned visitor, but June begrudgingly allows it, even letting slide cracks like Margot’s after some helpful cleaning, “I keep expecting to find a dead body.”
Sibling rivalry rears its head, though, after their conversation discloses that Margot, also a writer, never had success the way June did with her counter-culture smash novel “The Patriarch,” hardback copies of which litter the apartment. I wish we didn’t have to learn about the book’s impact — including a key piece of psychological information — from a TV interview clip that awkwardly recreates a late-’60s interview show with an imperiously judgmental William F. Buckley-type (Brennan Brown, overdoing it). It’s a heavy-handed bit of shoved-in exposition that disrupts the already-wearying aura of housebound anxiety in the movie’s Hitchcockian shout-outs and “Repulsion”-like set-up.
Then again, regarding the latter reference, perhaps one of Griffin’s goals was to refashion Roman Polanski’s horror classic about a delicate beauty’s corrosive fear of sexually liberated society into a more timely scenario that adds political existential dread and the historical reality of sexual violence as thematic hues. When June finally gets a cop (Jeremy Bobb, “Escape at Dannemora”) to make a house call about the menacing buzzing, it devolves into a believably danger-filled exchange surrounding male institutional power. Later, the appearance of a want-ad-solicited “date” named Billy (an effective Emory Cohen), a self-proclaimed “midnight cowboy,” carries its own mini-rollercoaster of suspicion, sensitivity and worry.
Eventually, though, when the notorious blackout of that New York summer factors into the finale, there’s little sense that the movie’s external certainties and interior turbulence have fused into anything meaningful. Again, there’s admirable visceral oomph to Griffin’s final push as that infamous night’s destructiveness becomes impossible for June to ignore, but what we’re left with as an emotional climax is lacking and, one could argue, predictable considering the protagonist’s profession.
There will surely be buzz surrounding Watts, who conveys utter dedication to June’s predicament even as the movie around her betrays a stylistically engineered quality. “The Wolf Hour” is, in a sense, almost too smart for its own good: savvy about the movie language of cooped-up constructs, aesthetically bold in look and sound, and content to let a great actor lead the way. But even lives like June’s — brilliant but trapped in their neuroticism — need to feel alive onscreen, not just coldly examined, and ultimately “The Wolf Hour” feels more like an exercise in the psychology of unease than a full-throttle leap into it.