'The Wolf Hour': Film Review | Sundance 2019

THE WOLF HOUR Still 1 - Sundance Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Despite Watts' tensile performance, hardly a howling success.

Naomi Watts plays a troubled novelist who shuts herself up in a sweltering South Bronx apartment through the Summer of Sam in Alistair Banks Griffin's isolation thriller.

A deglammed Naomi Watts puts herself through the wringer as a paranoid agoraphobic, holed up in the South Bronx apartment of her late grandmother on a diet of cigarettes and booze while New York shudders, sweats and burns in The Wolf Hour. It's 1977, the Summer of Sam, and the escalating murder count is spreading panic through the city. But the condition of Watts' character June Leigh, a counterculture novelist whose first book was a sensation, is of her own making. Or is it? Those are the basics of writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin's claustrophobic psychological thriller, a showy acting vehicle stronger on gritty surface texture than character involvement.

You can't fault Watts' commitment to the role in a movie so hermetic it could almost be a play. But this is second-rate Polanski fodder that crawls along with not much force beyond the neurotic protagonist's simmering dread and the vague menace of an intermittently buzzing intercom with no one there. Given that the only way for a movie like this to end — spoiler alert! — is for her to face her fears and step outside, you need to care about the character to give that emergence from hiding any emotional impact.

New York as a cauldron for violence and unrest is a familiar backdrop. The perfect storm of '77 that combined a wave of killings, a city in financial collapse, an unrelenting heatwave and a power blackout that led to looting and arson was turned into a self-indulgent, overblown symphony by Spike Lee in 1999's Summer of Sam. Here it's a background-noise tease that never amounts to much; Griffin is more interested in the existential threat, the creeping monster of guilt and the sophomore block of a once-esteemed writer whose stock has fallen during the long wait for her second book. In terms of plot mechanics it's thin gruel. Even a Chekhovian gun gets hidden beneath the floorboards and promptly forgotten.

It's unclear how long June has been a shut-in, but from the trash bags piling up attracting flies and the concern of her old friend Margot (Jennifer Ehle) when she forces her way in, it's obviously been a while. Margot helps her clean up, and when she finds reams of brilliant raw prose she urges June to finish and submit the novel. But June turns hostile and drives her out in a fit of irrational drunken rage. At that point, she conveniently pops in a VHS of a TV interview from when she was riding high on the bestseller charts to give us the root of her trauma, a revelation that doesn't pack much dramatic punch.

Other emissaries from the increasingly chaotic real world outside appear throughout the film, the sole repeat visitor being Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a delivery guy from the local bodega. He sticks around long enough to wash up and wax philosophical with dialogue so purple it's the first clue we might be watching the embryonic form of June's second novel.

There's also a sleazy cop (Jeremy Bobb), who responds to June's 911 harassment complaint by suggesting he could stop by periodically to check in on her in exchange for a sexual "arrangement." That obviously doesn't play well with the principled feminist who made waves by declaring herself a reluctant witness to cultural genocide. But she does have physical needs, which are seen to by midnight cowboy Billy (Emory Cohen), allowing June to relax for a minute in the post-carnal glow until that pesky buzzer sets her on edge again. Somewhere along the way, she's prompted to haul out the typewriter and knuckle down on that overdue book.

It's easy enough to see what drew a talented actor like Watts to this one-note material, since it's pretty much a solo show, the remaining cast serving as props to draw out different shades of June's damaged personality. The problem is it's all too dour and ponderously portentous to pull us into her world. Watts plays her bone-deep anxiety to the hilt, but even when the causes are laid out, she remains a fairly obvious metaphor for an unraveling society, both then and now. As such, The Wolf Hour — which gives granular attention to the artfully grungy visuals, the wash of ambient sound filtering in from outside and the strategic use of a moody score laced with nervous strings — feels like a B-movie crippled by self-importance.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Production companies: Automatik, Bradley Pilz Productions, in association with HanWay Films
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jennifer Ehle, Emory Cohen, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Brennan Brown, Jeremy Bobb
Director-screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin
Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Bailey Conway Anglewicz, Bradley Pilz
Executive producers: Naomi Watts, Fred Berger, Felipe Dieppa, Kate Driver, Garrett P. Fennelly, Linda Moran, Taryn Nagle, Philip W. Shaltz
Director of photography: Khalid Mohtaseb
Production designer: Kaet McAnneny
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi
Editor: Robert Mead
Casting: Stephanie Holbrook
Sales: CAA

99 minutes