A movie about identity that doesn’t know its own identity, Nathalie Biancheri’s “Wolf” starts in the wilderness, and pretty much stays there as it tries to tease sympathetic human drama out of the singularity known as species dysphoria, a condition in which people believe themselves to be not human, usually an animal.
Set mostly in a facility designed to “cure” such folk, and where young, lupine-identified protagonist Jacob (George MacKay, “1917”) is sent by his concerned parents, “Wolf” believes itself to be something outré and profound — a love story and a confinement parable, a fight-the-system allegory inside a be-yourself tear-jerker — and maybe just the fable for our identity-conscious era.
And yet, anyone genuinely going through something serious and transformative about who they are and how they fit in the world isn’t likely to watch a dog-costumed, leashed teenager (Fionn O’Shea, “Normal People”) urinating with his leg raised, and think, “Yep, just like my struggle.”
If anyone does feel seen from the movie, it’s likely to do with the seriousness of MacKay’s performance, because it’s an impressively physical, internally steadfast portrait of outsiderdom that Biancheri considers with awe and respect, from the opening scenes when he’s a nude, silent figure communing with nature, to the times when he’s cautiously person-like, observing his surroundings in clothes, upright and talking.
But it’s as if Biancheri, who started in documentaries, had happened upon Jacob, not written, cast, and directed him, and that’s one of the film’s problems, because it turns Jacob into more of a specimen than flesh-and-blood as he moves back and forth between a liberating wolfishness and a reserved humanness. There’s nothing wrong, obviously, with a lead who’s an enigma, but when the rest of your movie is a stylistic and tonal hodgepodge, you wind up with something rudderless, ultimately trivializing about the complexities of human psychology.
It’s also hard to get a grip on the treatment center as either an allegory or a believably operating place. A remote forest building that looks barely maintained, with a center “playground” of fake trees, raised beds, tables, and astroturf, it’s confusingly imagined as both a haven and a hell. When soft-spoken Dr. Angeli (Eileen Walsh, “Catastrophe”) is in charge, the patients seem barely containable as they scurry, whine, squawk, and bark to their heart’s content, and the vibe is a teacher dealing with unruly students, like a Parrot (Lola Petticrew, “Dating Amber”) who just repeats everything she says.
When arrogant clinic head Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine) gets in their face, however, it’s a shorter-fused therapy built around humiliation, angry logic, and brutality — a mean dad with punishment on the brain. One moment he seems motivated to feed his ego by turning his patients into success stories; the next he’s a sadistic tyrant, then finally, at his most frustrated, his own version of an alpha male beast trapped in human form. A reliably versatile actor, Considine is close to fascinating and always watchable, but as written, Dr. Mann is a bundle of authoritarian-villain tropes instead of a character.
The love story in Biancheri’s screenplay comes with the appearance of Lily-Rose Depp’s nicely turned if similarly underimagined Wildcat, a lonely clinic mainstay who sees in Jacob a kindred spirit that could make going through the motions of the program bearable. Their secret nightly excursions to satisfy her feline prowling and his need to bay are romantic in their way, as they circle each other in a mutual understanding of hisses, growls, and sniffs. Michal Dymek’s moonlit, shadowy cinematography in these moments is admirably atmospheric and intimate, keenly attuned to the actors’ litheness and lightness as they enjoy momentary freedom.
But this “David & Lisa” meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” scenario doesn’t feel especially deep, and it can’t hold the emotional weight Biancheri requires in the last act when she ups the peril and the revelations, and tries to push “Wolf” toward an is-this-love-or-isn’t-it, what-is-freedom conclusion. It’s frankly hard to care by that point. What started with a sympathetic gaze promising complexity ultimately succumbs to the messiness of mixed tones and shallow observations, a call of the wild reduced to some tinny, ignorable whimpers.
“Wolf” opens in US theaters Dec. 3.