"For he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." That often-abused quote, attributed to Samuel Johnson, is really not about animals at all. The writer was musing on why humans indulge their baser instincts. But what if those animalistic passions and callings could be seen as the true nature, and cruelty and gluttony are two-legged flaws?
In Wolf, the uncomfortable character study by Nathalie Biancheri (Nocturnal), Jacob truly believes that he is a wolf. Or rather, that he should be. What he sees and feels is not right: His nose too short to be a snout, his fingers too soft for pads, his thighs too bony to be haunches. That's why he's been sent to a medical facility to get better, to be as human on the inside as he is outside.
Superficially, Wolf may seem like an entry into the queer canon, and it's not hard to see superficial similarities between the facility and a gay conversion therapy facility, or to superimpose transphobia onto Jacob's diagnosis of species dysphoria. But Biancheri isn't trying for some overt, one-for-one metaphor, meaning this also isn't a furry story, or a stealthy lycanthropic tale. It's broader, more amorphous and opaque, a questioning of identity within societal constraints, of what it takes to fit in, and asking at what point one rejects the limits of normal because it's impossible to comply. At the same time, there's no easy liberation. The other residents are incapable of functioning within human society, but need its support system to survive.
If that makes it seem like there are no easy answers here, it's because there are none to be found in this bleak and restrained drama. Biancheri doesn't romanticize the plight of the patients, nor does the story homogenize them. Species dysphoria is only a name, and it's hard to see the connection between Jacob and the boy who thinks he's a squirrel, or the girl who mocks the medical staff by a parrot's mimicry. Maybe there's some kinship with the wildcat (Depp), who seems most at odds with the strictures of humanity.
And how could the bipedal existence seem alluring when it's represented by Paddy Considine as one of the staff. Nicknamed the zookeeper, his cruelty is extraordinary, and Considine's stomach-churning performance would fit perfectly into Alan Clarke's still-unmatched depiction of British institutional brutality, Scum. Yet it's really MacKay's physicality that makes what Biancheri intends so clear. As the shellshocked runner in Sam Mendes' Great War epic 1917, he was a ghost, a shade of a man. Here he's skin over fur, at odds with his inner nature. It's a dance of meaning and inner conflict, one that must have placed impossible burdens on his body, and one that is impeccably captured by cinematographer Michal Dymek. It's in his hollow eyes and the roll of his shoulder that MacKay sums up the choices Jacob faces. Johnson, it seems, was wrong. It's not about getting rid of pain. It's about choosing which kind to endure.
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