“The reluctance to explore beneath its grimy surface is a constant disappointment”
The Wolf Hour is a film that you can smell. It’s the hellish summer of 1977, and deep in the run-down apartments of South Bronx, writer June Leigh (Naomi Watts) sweats in her tank top whilst a fan timidly blows the hair from her face. The serial killer Son of Sam is on the loose, looking for women with average brown hair. Sirens wail continuously in the distance. It is a suffocating cityscape on the brink. June has shut herself away completely, trash bags gather flies next to her unfinished book. Every now and then her door buzzer rings, but nobody is ever there – just ominous static. Writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin and his talented team of designers have created a festering Petri dish world all within the confines of a single room. The location is the star of the show and Naomi Watts is its special guest. Both keep the film interesting, but this tantalising beginning tiptoes to a ridiculous, unsatisfying end.
June spends her days peering anxiously through the chains of her locked door or peeking precariously out of her grime encrusted window. She lowers her trash out of the window by a rope because she’s too afraid to go downstairs, and when she does venture beyond her room, it comes across as comical rather than sincere. The film tries its hardest to make you empathise with June’s fear of the external world, created by her internal struggle, but for all the displays of her mental frailties, you never really feel them.
As the film boils along, June encounters various visitors to help liven her up her monotony, as well as ours. She forms a brief and naive bond with a local delivery boy, Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who gives another effective performance, albeit vastly underwritten. He delivers her food and helps take out her trash in exchange for washing his sweat off in her sink. Sometimes her groceries are incomplete, hinting that nobody can be trusted in this neighbourhood, which makes a crucial decision in the third act even more unbelievable. Elsewhere, she avoids gross sexual advances from a piggish city cop (Jeremy Bobb) that answers her distress calls, and the film makes a good case that all it takes is a little heat for a city to combust.
June’s self-imposed exile amidst a city going mad under the sun and in the shadow of a serial killer is perhaps a strange inversion to the current global isolation gripping the world. I imagine watching this film in the middle of summer has its own meta entertainment but watching it during a cold and anxious spring as a global pandemic wreaks havoc outside offers a similar morbid curiosity.
Eventually we learn what caused June’s isolation, but this discovery happens through a tape recording of her past self, so once again it feels like we only experience June’s emotions at a safe distance. Therefore, we never really understand what motivates her. This undermines her potentially life-changing decisions. Fortunately, Naomi Watts delivers a sweltering performance, and she is as ever, really good despite the content of the film. Even with Watts chewing through a bland script, June fails to come alive. When it concludes, the film flutters out like a candle. The Wolf Hour is effective on a surface level and the reluctance to explore beneath its grimy surface is a constant disappointment.
Themes are waiting in plain sight to be tackled and subverted, but they’re avoided as efficiently as June avoids everything around her. There is obvious racial commentary bubbling under the surface, as it is set in 1970s America, but we never get to dig into this. It’s so unavoidable that it makes the film’s reluctance to engage with it puzzling. June is a white woman that lives in fear, as crowds of black Americans loiter in the streets below her room – like wolves, the film suggests. They shout around her, break into stores beneath her window, and their presence alone essentially imprisons June in a decrepit flat. And yet, the film simply shows no interest in engaging with this. It’s so concerned about how June will write her next book that it forgets all the interesting things happening around her.
The film even teases halfway through that it’s about to go somewhere exciting, and then does absolutely nothing. It suggests things are about to go off with a bang, but they never do. When it ended, I had to consciously remind myself that there was a fully loaded gun in June’s apartment. There is more tension in a children’s bedtime story than in The Wolf Hour, because in this story the wolf knocks on the door, then simply leaves and the pigs all safely go outside.
Director: Alistair Banks Griffin
Producers: Bradley Pilz, Bailey Conway, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Cast: Naomi Watts, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Emory Cohen
Release Date: 2020
Available to rent or buy on Prime Video
Featured image courtesy of Brainstorm Media