Technically I suppose that Wolf is an effective film, if only because I’ve rarely seen one match its form to its subject matter so precisely. As a movie it is a slight affair, and the plot can be summed up quickly: Jacob (George MacKay), a young man who believes he is a wolf, enters a clinic to treat his Species Identity Disorder. The treatment is harsh, and in the climax he either does or does not leave the facility (to answer that would be the only spoiler I can imagine being possible with this movie). What the movie does, however, is so much more. It’s a thought-provoking illustration of the dangers of pathologizing personal identity and the pitfalls of supposed treatments. It’s a meditation on selfhood and whether we are more than our physical manifestations, one that unspools more in the minds of the viewers than onscreen. Thus Wolf is, itself, more than its manifestation. It is a movie about dysphoria that causes dysphoria, as you struggle to unite everything it makes you think to the sparse, insufficient trappings of the package. And if you find yourself feeling unsatisfied by the time the credits roll, well — maybe that’s a little bit effective too, because there are no easy answers here.
It will hardly come as a surprise to learn that the psychological construct of Species Identity Disorder, such as it is, is rooted — or perhaps inspired by — the construct of Gender Identity Disorder. Yet writer/director Nathalie Biancheri smartly refuses to let the one be used as a mere metaphor for the other. Her vision of the trauma of conversion therapy for people who believe they are animals is both specific and restrained, and she trusts us to be able to apply the message universally without doing the legwork for us. She resists the urge to go over-the-top with a tantalizing premise like “man who thinks he’s a wolf”, because doing so would have undermined the dignity of Jacob and all the other patients — and undermining their dignity is the dangerous purview of the therapy. Instead of a parade of horrors in an asylum, she crafts a litany of disrespect unfurling inside glass walls and over astroturf floors. Paddy Considine portrays the head doctor of the clinic (dubbed “The Zookeeper” according to IMDb) who repeatedly confronts the patients with the inability of their human bodies to behave the way their animal selves should. Climb the tree, he yells at the squirrel boy, or jump and fly to the girl who is a parrot. When they can’t — when their nails break or their fear of gravity kicks in — he makes them admit that they are human. The carrot at the end of that stick is his claims that humans are superior. Humans are blessed with consciousness while animals are nothing but instinct. You should be happy to be human, and you can’t be happy unless you’re human. The problem, of course, is that the therapy is rooted in the idea that their essential selves are nothing more than their physical selves and that they need to accept it — which is another way of saying that the cure is to admit that they’re wrong about who they are. Biancheri plays out the psychological trauma of that coercion, knowing it’s just as powerful as any amount of physical beatings, and Considine’s genteel sneer as he drives the point home never gets less chilling.
Into this clinic walks Jacob, a wolf in the body of a man, and it’s his point of view that throws the treatment into stark relief. His parents drop him off with a plea — “Try to get better” — and at first it seems he may be poised to do so. In crude terms his case doesn’t seem that serious, but as Wolf progresses it’s clear that what at first reads as near-normalcy is actually the quiet reserve or a predator in wait. If nothing else, the film is an acting showcase for MacKay, who reveals his lupine soul both in his stillest moments and in his howls. The movie is at its best when MacKay is stalking the corridors at night on all fours, moonlight highlighting his rippling back and swaying form, and… look, it’s HOT okay? It just flat-out is. I’m sorry, I’m really trying to be intellectual here but my man is like a fantasy ripped straight off AO3, and I need you to know that even if there is nothing else to this movie that appeals to you, his performance will still AWAKEN SOME THINGS. Ahem. ANYWAY, though the treatment is designed to break down the patients it has the opposite impact on Jacob. His will hardens as he realizes that the help the clinic promises isn’t to reconcile his identity with his flesh — it’s to deny his identity entirely.
Like an alpha standing apart from the pack, Jacob doesn’t make many friends among his fellow patients. Instead he bonds with Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a girl in permanent residence at the facility. We get just enough of her backstory to know it is darker than his, and Biancheri begins to sketch just how individual this dysphoria can be. Wildcat discovered her animal in fear, but fear is also what keeps her docile. The clinic hasn’t cured her, but it has kept her safe, and she believes there is no place for her in the world. “It’s not about surviving; It’s about surviving as me,” is Jacob’s response as he plots a way to escape his confines and flee into the woods where his soul can be comfortable, if not his body. Their relationship builds across nighttime interludes, camaraderie morphing into attraction, and the film toys with whether Jacob can convince Wildcat to leave, or whether she can get him to stay.
By the time the staff realize that Jacob more than they can handle and begin to take a firmer hand in his “treatment”, I was rooting for him to fight back tooth and claw the way he so desperately wanted. I wanted Jacob to be a wolf as much as he did, and that’s another way Wolf is effective: It makes you as feel the frustration of his human limitations. It makes you believe. For those of us fortunate to be in flesh that corresponds with our internal identities, it’s one thing to sympathize with his struggle and another thing entirely to empathize. The film methodically pushes you toward empathy, and that’s a priceless commodity.
Wolf opened in theaters December 3, 2022.