Wolves (2016) Film Review from the 15th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, a movie directed by Bart Freundlich, starring Michael Shannon, Carla Gugino, Taylor John Smith, Chris Bauer, Christopher Meyer, Jake Choi, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Matthew Porretta, and John Douglas Thompson.
Wolves was about as subtle as an after school special, but with much better performances. The problem is that while I wouldn’t mind sitting through after school specials, if cast & directed this well, I’m not sure I’d be willing to sit through it on the big screen.
I was, however, able to get an early feel for the film, once I decided to keep its progression in context with its title. At its heart, it was a film about compulsion – almost at an instinctual level – that ensured that none of the film’s characters were capable of doing anything but what they would eventually do, by the end.
The point to watching then being paying attention to every detail marking a point-of-no-return – both in terms of characters setting a given path, or locking in to the certain consequence, all the while trying to convince themselves that they were in control.
I guess you could say it was like watching a nature documentary. You could guess how certain subjects would end up; but it’s still fun to watch the nature of the beast go through the paces.
Step one for Lee Keller (Michael Shannon) came with literally drawing first blood – so there was no mistaking either who the Alpha was, or how he went about wielding that status. On the receiving end was his son, Anthony (Taylor John Smith), who earned this special attention for having shown weakness on the basketball court, where he was otherwise a superstar – so maybe he needed reminding of his place off the court. Caught between them was Jenny (Carla Gugino) – as fiercely protective of her son, as she was demurring to her husband, and somehow convinced that she could manage this dual role. This was Lee’s pack, and Anthony’s only path to one of his own (as a future basketball star) was through him.
There was also the matter of Anthony getting in his own way. Either as a consequence of his father, or as a response to him, Anthony lacked the aggression necessary to go beyond high school stardom. I found his circling of this circumstance to be about as compelling as the next fan of self-pity parties; but once Anthony stepped out of his comfort zone, it was back to watching wildlife at work.
Where Wolves & my imagined nature doc converged best was on the pick-up court of inner city New York. In both cases, there is no such thing as playing fair (‘cause all’s fair, in Love & Basketball), and you absolutely need to adapt or die. For this lesson, the character of Socrates (John Douglas Thompson), deserved more credit than the role of ‘the washed up somebody, out to offer the hero an off ramp to the greatness he, himself, had lost’ afforded him. As a Human being, Socrates was just too much of an archetype to be believed; but as a living Call of the Wild, he was a much needed reminder that Anthony’s problems were much simpler than he (or the filmmaker) believed. Do what needs to be done – don’t think or feel about it.
This notion certainly went into Lee’s Alpha status, as very little thought went into his dangerous gambling habit – other than he was on top of it – and his most intense feelings were directed at holding his family in place – whether they wanted to be in the place he had in mind or not.
Helping him out, in that regard (but not necessarily they way he thought), was brother Charlie (Chris Bauer). Now Charlie was easily the most affable character on screen (sorry, Anthony’s colorful friends); but in the sort of way that made him more of an essential accessory, than a fully formed character – the kind meant to embellish main characters by association. If you pay close attention, there may have been a question of exactly who Charlie was associating with, throughout the film; but for all intents & purposes, he spent most of it managing Lee.
While the Lee role wasn’t one of outright villainy (no good documentary should have those), a history of violence & menace came through, starting with Anthony’s bloody nose, and continuing through a scene involving Anthony having his girlfriend over. The thing to watch, however, was how far Lee was willing to go, putting his habit before his family. Never mind the veritable type casting of Shannon – we’ve seen this particular character before (Premium Rush). The difference, this time around, is that Shannon’s character had a family in tow – making him as much a hostage to them, as they most certainly were to him.
I’d also consider the Jenny role an expansion of Gugino’s turn in Suckerpunch – that of the helpless, yet fiercely protective, mother figure – but such a comparison might be unfair. No character in Suckerpunch was as nuanced as the cast of Wolves.
Like the former Alpha – and competing influence – Socrates, Lee had a bit of the lone wolf to him – his habit possibly a manifestation of his desire to master the pack life he may not have actually wanted. It was as good an explanation as any, when the thing to watch came to pass, anyway; setting up a climax with all players in place, for Anthony’s reconciling of dueling Alpha influences.
In the midst of all of its cliched climactic drama, last second heroics, and inevitable comeuppance, the most intriguing thing about Wolves may have been the only subtle thing about it. There was an extra detail, to Charlie’s history with Lee’s family, that may have shed a whole other light on that family dynamic.
The subtle hostility Lee had towards Anthony may have been more than just Oedipal, Charlie’s dutifulness may have been more than just the loyalty of a brother/ friend, and the ease with which Jenny was able to eventually abandon the weak link (in solidarity with Charlie) may have been more in line with her desire to protect her entire family than any of her previous efforts.
In the end, Lee may have been a lone wolf all along – merely keeping up appearances as a matter of exercising control. Of course, when it’s in your nature to go against the natural order, nature restores order. There are always other pack hunters waiting in the wings, for when lone wolf Alphas become outcasts.
Well, that was my imagining of Wolves as an allegorical nature documentary, anyway. Maybe a narration by Sir Richard Attenborough would’ve helped getting past the more cliched bits; but there was something to be said for the consistency to the Nature of the Beast angle.
Knowing the odds (and even the outcomes, at times), won’t necessarily detract from watching animals struggle to survive/ thrive; but this wasn’t a wildlife documentary, and I don’t expect everyone to go as far as I did, to make this film any more relatable, or any less by the numbers.
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