Equal parts captivating and cringey, writer/director Nathalie Biancheri’s Wolf flounders in the face of articulating its own thesis. Though it flirts with documenting the deeply traumatizing experiences of adolescents sent to shady psychological treatment facilities by hysterical parents, it ultimately falls back on the very cruelty it claims to be cognizant of. Featuring fractured moments of stellar performance from George MacKay (who plays the titular boy in Wolf’s clothing) and stunning shots captured by cinematographer Michal Dymek, the film still can’t synthesize what it’s trying to convey—and what exactly it’s trying to critique.
Sent to a remote clinic by desperate parents, Jacob (MacKay) is immediately placed under psychiatric care to address an identity crisis of sorts. Jacob suffers from “species dysphoria,” which causes him to believe that he is a wolf trapped in a human’s body. There are several other patients who experience the same dysphoria, all conveniently identifying with a different animal: There’s the skittish, lanky boy who believes he’s a squirrel; the girl who dons a red feathered cape believing she’s a parrot; an energetic kid literally named “Rufus” who’s convinced he’s a dog. They all undergo harsh exposure therapy from the dreaded Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine), whose dastardly tactics often result in physical harm to the patients. His effective foil is Dr. Angeli (Eileen Walsh), who emits an aura of caring maternity—though it’s often laced with smothering haughtiness. Forced to walk on a leash and engage in mind-numbing group therapy sessions, Jacob’s only reprieve at the clinic is found in Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a 20-year-old who is not quite a patient, but also not housed on the premises of her own volition. As he and Wildcat begin to develop a flirtatious interspecies relationship, Jacob descends deeper into his fantasy, effectively transforming into a lycanthropic figure—with Wildcat serving as his full moon.
The obvious parallel Wolf wishes to make is the abuse inherent in sending children to conversion camps and gender-corrective therapies. This is demonstrated by Dr. Mann’s unflinching sadism, forcing teens to push their bodies and psyches to the physical brink of pain and terror in order to assert they are, in fact, not the animal they claim to be. He goes so far as to chastise the “spiritual” (i.e. immaterial) relationship each patient has to their animal kin, a not-so-subtle metaphor for gender essentialism. Yet Biancheri’s own narrative fascination with the condition doesn’t implement any sort of compassionate or empowering lens. This is likely due to the director’s original intention to shoot the film as a documentary, eventually choosing to make it into a feature in order to maintain creative control of the narrative. Though Biancheri sought to investigate a real phenomenon, her surface-level study communicates little else but uninspired traumatic torment. The young people committed to the facility only get worse, and along the way have their faces shoved in puddles of piss, have an angry man berate them while angry spittle flies in their faces, and form disturbing codependent (and cohabitating) relationships with staff. Even when the prospect of fleeing is presented, there is still the cliched presence of Stockholm syndrome tethering each student to the facility—particularly Wildcat, whose past abuse is also milked for the “damaged gamine” trope.
However, the film still presents enthralling sequences of visual splendor, namely the way in which MacKay goes full-on Animorph in his houndly movements. In contrast to Depp’s childish catlike crawling, he truly embodies a human who attempts with every fiber of his being to mold flesh into fur—it is at times sickening and scintillating to watch. The vast shots of the lush woodland right outside of the drab facility’s barbed wire fence also present the allure of nature just outside of reach, substituted inside the sterile medical landscape with cardboard trees and plastic grass. But Wolf never fully examines the nature vs. nurture dichotomy it presents, merely juxtaposing these images and hoping that something insightful springs forth from the frame. In a film rife with binaries and contrasts—human vs. animal, doctor vs. patient, parent vs. child—this conflict is never released, let alone resolved, meaning that the film never takes any sort of meaningful position. Images are more than capable of transmitting valuable ideas all on their own, but rarely without a focused eye behind the camera. Unfortunately, Biancheri’s eye wanders listlessly between ideas of identity, psychology and power, never quite fixing her gaze long enough to observe the finer details.
Not entirely without moments of engrossing performance and spectacle, Wolf is almost worth the watch for the bravery of its lead actors. Acting like a wild animal in heat must have been a hard enough assignment on its face, and it’s frankly amazing that MacKay and Depp don’t give viewers a permanent case of schadenfreude. Though this is no small feat, it’s not enough to salvage a film that lacks apparent motive, losing itself in grisly acts of inhumanity as opposed to probing the interiority of its characters outside of sparse diary entries. By only indulging in the dredges of psychiatric cruelty, one would think Wolf’s message would feel less ambiguous. Alas, a hodgepodge of sentiments surrounding the nature of humanity crop up throughout the film, never lingering long enough to give audiences something substantial to chew on.
Director: Nathalie Biancheri
Writer: Nathalie Biancheri
Stars: George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Eileen Walsh, Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew
Release Date: December 3, 2021 (Focus Features)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan