“Wolf” opens abruptly, the camera centered on a young man standing naked in a forest. He’s surrounded by a deep, verdant landscape, partially obscured by tree limbs and leaves, standing still and silent. Then, he begins to move.
The audience quickly learns that this young man, Jacob (George MacKay), believes that he is a wolf trapped within a human’s body. This opening sequence would have been the perfect place to set the tone for Jacob’s more lupine characteristics. It could have been a primer for his physicality, the camera capturing his entire body as he slinks through the forest undergrowth on all fours, his muscles visibly constricting and expanding, kinetic underneath his skin.
But after that initial, lingering shot of Jacob from afar, the scene transitions to intense close-ups of his body, some so tight and blurred it’s hard to tell which part of him you’re looking at. His body doesn’t seem powerful or animalistic, but fractured. And that’s the issue with “Wolf.” Despite a committed performance from MacKay, the film’s storytelling is unfocused and dull, muddling its way through its central metaphor and never devoted enough to the physical carnality of its main character.
There’s no doubt that cinematographer Michal Dymek’s choices in that opening sequence are meant to visually explain the complicated and surreal predicament Jacob finds himself in at the film’s start, but as the character changes, the filmmaking stays static. “Wolf” picks up right before Jacob’s parents send him to a specialized, mysterious clinic where he will live with other people who also believe themselves to be animals and be rehabilitated to live like a human. The scene in the woods is a recurring dream that Jacob has, where he imagines himself to be free. But in the real world, freedom is further away than ever.
As Jacob’s doctors’ methods become increasingly barbaric, he becomes more true and connected to his inner wolf. And yet, while MacKay’s performance is the film’s bright spot, “Wolf” appears to have no real interest in how Jacob’s self acceptance physically manifests. MacKay ably embodies the wolf – he bares his teeth ferociously, he bays at the moon, and he creeps, furtive on all fours, through the clinic’s dark hallways at night. As Jacob, he’s stilted and tense, but he slips seamlessly into the confident, smooth movements of the wolf. He’s fun to watch – that is, when you can actually see him.
In a film where so much leans on one actor’s physicality, the audience rarely sees Jacob’s movements in full. Even when Jacob is less conflicted, giving himself over to self-acceptance, he’s mostly seen slipping in and out of shadows, or completely shrouded in darkness. There are moments where we see Jacob wholly, the power of the wolf on full display, but they are far and few between. So much of this story depends on the believability and control the actor has over his physicality, but the film rarely treats the audience to the totality of that performance, only allowing for fleeting glimpses in the moonlight. It might be easier to forgive the furtiveness of the cinematography if there were more pay off at the end of the film, but Jacob’s final moments are just as obscured as ever.
That unfocused quality extends from the filmmaking to the film’s central metaphor. The clinic Jacob has been sent to specializes in a form of conversion therapy. While species dysphoria – an experience where someone believes they are the wrong species – is a real thing, conversion therapy is most closely associated with the LGBTQ+ community and has been used harmfully against that community for decades, with proponents falsely claiming it can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. “Wolf” is interested in identity and what sort of structures exist to keep people from authentically being themselves. But the metaphor seems to ignore societal structures and pressures in favor of individual motivations. Conversion therapy is evil, and so is Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine), the sadistic “Zookeeper” who runs the clinic. But while the evils of conversion therapy often exist masked behind religious, political, and social motives in the real world, in the world of “Wolf,” the therapy seems to exist solely because of the dastardly whims of one man.
There are hints about how the outside world would view someone in Jacob’s position, but there’s nothing to suggest why Dr. Mann would feel compelled to make this his life’s work. There’s little characterization for any of the film’s characters, but that lack is felt most heavily with Dr. Mann, who seems to have no motivation or background beyond a profound talent for cruelty. Boiling down societal ills to this one, barely-there character feels reductive. It’s possible that Dr. Mann’s name, clearly meant to represent his quest to rehabilitate his patients to humanity, might also serve as a facile attempt to equate him with society itself – “the man,” if you will. However, it’s unclear if that’s the intent, adding deeper uncertainty to an already unfocused narrative.