A child taken hostage. A parent desperate to rescue her child from a shadowy gang. A pack of wolves hunting hikers in the frigid wilderness. While these ingredients sound like a cinematic mash-up of Liam Neeson’s “Taken” and “The Grey,” director David Hackl’s action-thriller “Daughter of the Wolf” captures something unique: the tenacious drive of a mother battling her way through criminals and the cold to rescue her teen son from a madman. Despite never quite reaching the fevered pitch of those aforementioned thrillers, the filmmakers adeptly blur the lines between the heroes and anti-heroes, constructing a dynamic, character-driven portrait of rage and redemption.
Ex-military specialist Clair Hamilton (Gina Carano) is going through a rough patch. The stench of death has followed her through two tours in the Middle East and now back at home. Her father recently passed away and her teen son Charlie (Anton Gillis-Adelman) is withdrawing from her affections, blaming her for their fractured relationship. Years prior, she abandoned him to the care of her dad so she could re-enlist and return to the combat zone — her way of dealing with the inconsolable grief of losing Charlie’s father in a roadside bombing. She’s returned for a reckoning and reconciliation, shouldering the guilt of leaving her son behind. However, right as the pair attempt to mend these familial fissures, Charlie is kidnapped by thugs led by the ruthless “Father” (Richard Dreyfuss) and held for ransom — a ransom that’s not merely monetary.
Father had a long-standing grudge against Clair’s dad, and he’s determined to make Clair pay for her dad’s actions, robbing her of everything she holds dear. Only he can’t kill her spirit, which is as ferocious as the pack of wolves protecting her and stalking her kid’s captors. Clair’s inner fire is ignited as she fights through the harsh cold snap of winter. She surprisingly finds a compassionate connection with a henchman she maimed, Larsen (Brendan Fehr), whose insight into these tenuous circumstances proves crucial to their survival.
Hackl’s direction and Nika Agiashvili’s writing is fairly astute. Sure, some of Carano’s dialogue is wooden. The groan-inducing line, “You brought this to my doorstep,” is as flat as the frozen lake she falls through at one point. Yet Hackl knows how to harness Carano’s volatile beauty and fierce physicality to fire up Clair’s frustrations and fearlessness during the character-driven action sequences. Dreyfuss’ performance occasionally borders on hammy. During the climax, he delivers a committed, but unhinged and wheezy Nick Nolte impression. And portions of the fight choreography are iffy, specifically one sequence involving Carano playing chicken with a snowmobile.
That said, the filmmakers wisely use the environment to augment the narrative’s stronger aspects. Themes of revenge, rebirth and restitution are woven into the fabric with a light touch. The backdrop of a chilly Canadian winter works in tandem with the character’s cold vengeance. Hackl and company coax these motivating traits out through nuance, letting the audience extrapolate the inner workings of the characters’ psyches. Parent-child relationships are deconstructed and examined through Clair and Charlie’s blood ties, but also through the surrogate father-son bond between Larsen and Father.
Setting this thematically potent picture in the harsh wilderness provides a fascinating juxtaposition of the gritty nature of the story and mother nature’s dangerous splendor. Hackl and cinematographer Mark Dobrescu deliver a sleek, superb vision. Slick drone shots take the “God’s eye” perspective, judging these characters’ actions and consequences. With its massive towering trees, the forest represents the emotional prison in which the various characters have locked themselves. Plus, the snow adds a crisp white patina, imbuing the picture with a cool, aesthetically arresting atmosphere.
In an era of the “Strong Female Character,” Hackl and Agiashvili’s iteration blessedly doesn’t rely on lazy screenwriting shorthand, nor does it pander to feminism with a simple gender-swap in its female-centered feature. These filmmakers are eager to explore the delicate facets of a forceful, fully-formed woman, and they do so with imagery that’s both stunning and subtle.