Producers: Jessie Fisk, Jane Doolan and Nathalie Biancheri Director: Nathalie Biancheri Screenplay: Nathalie Biancheri Cast: George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Eileen Walsh, Darragh Shannon, Lola Petticrew, Fionn O’Shea, Senan Jennings, Elsa Fionuir, Karise Yansen and Terry Notary Distributor: Focus Features
If you’ve never heard of species dysphoria, or species identity disorder, a mental condition involving the belief that one’s body is of the wrong species, Nathalie Biancheri’s film will provide a crash course in it. Its protagonist, Jacob (George MacKay), is convinced he is a wolf, not a man, and acts accordingly. Little wonder that he is committed to the institution run by Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine), also referred to as the Zookeeper, a specialist in the disorder; there he joins patients who believe that they are actually others animals, whether it be a squirrel (Darragh Shannon), a parrot (Lola Petticrew), a dog (Fionn O’Shea), a duck (Senan Jennings), a horse (Elsa Fionuir), a panda (Karise Yansen) or a lion (Terry Notary), among others.
The treatment provided by the appropriately named Mann is far from delicate. While other members of the staff, like the therapist played by Eileen Walsh, are more kind, Mann is imperious and brutal, even sadistic—except when dealing with patients’ relatives, with whom he is invariably courteous so long as they pay the bills. He urges Petticrew’s Polly to jump out a window to prove she can fly, for instance, and flogs Jeremy, Shannon’s squirrel, to crawl up a tree with his fingernails—with bloody results. But Mann claims that Jeremy’s progressed to be point that he can be released, though judging from his case it appears that recidivism is not unusual.
Mann is even more severe with those who are recalcitrant or rebellious, like Jacob, who wanders the halls on all fours at night, howling at the moon. His refusal to submit to Mann’s methods are exacerbated by his friendship with the enigmatic Cecile, also known as Wildcat (Lily Rose-Depp), a long-term resident who’s allowed to prowl about pretty much unchecked. He becomes more and more uncontrollable, until he’s finally subjected to the facility’s most stringent control—to be locked in a cage in a dungeon-like basement.
“Wolf” includes what might be termed ensemble sequences, as when the entire body of patients—excluding those who are caged, of course—are compelled to engage in therapeutic dance routines or general recess activities. There are also periodic outbursts by individual patients and even a mini-rebellion that is put down only with difficulty.
The centerpiece of the narrative, though, is Jacob’s story, that of a person determined to be true to what he sees as his true self. He reaches out to Wildcat to join his drive for freedom, but ultimately he’s the one patient who will risk everything to escape those determined to force him into their notion of what he ought to be. You might think of the picture as having a vibe not unlike “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but with a distinctly unorthodox added ingredient. Though the premise is intriguing, it’s extended to inordinate length, and may well provoke some unintended laughs along with those that are obviously hoped for.
What’s undeniable is the intense physicality MacKay demonstrates. Jacob is not an especially extrovert person in his “human” state—indeed, he’s reserved, uncomfortable and shy. But in what he considers his real form, he’s fearsomely agile, his limbs twisted and his eyes piercing, crawling and scraping his way to the outdoors that is his true home. Depp makes a mysterious soul mate, and Shannon is particularly touching among the other patients, but it’s Considine who matches MacKay’s ferocity with an obsessiveness of a different but related kind. He’s really a modern version of the old mad scientist—Dr. Moreau in new duds.
“Wolf” boasts a look that vacillates between bright sterility and sinister darkness via Joe Fallover’s production design, Allison Byrne’s costumes and Michal Dymek’s cinematography, and both Stefan Wesolowski’s score and Adonis Trattos’ editing contribute strongly to the realization of Biancheri’s peculiar vision.
The result is a film that’s bound to be divisive, with some acclaiming its challenging character and others dismissing its absurdity and unpleasantness. While definitely not to all tastes, it’s certainly provocative and disturbing, but overall it’s a near-miss.