×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Shanghai Film Review: ‘The Wolf Hour’

Naomi Watts delivers a nuanced, nervy turn as a reclusive shut-in stewing in paranoia, writer's block and the heat of the 1977 Bronx summer.

Director:
Alistair Banks Griffin
With:
Naomi Watts, Jennifer Ehle, Emory Cohen, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Brennan Brown, Jeremy Bobb.

Running time: 99 MIN.

Run a finger along any of the surfaces in Alistair Banks Griffin’s sophomore feature “The Wolf Hour,” and it will come up slicked with sweat, grime and the residual soot of the city. It is the summer of 1977,  and it’s hotter than hell. June Leigh (Naomi Watts) perches on the window sill of the squalid Bronx apartment she dares not leave, facing right into a lethargic fan that scarcely even stirs the wavy brown hair off her sticky shoulders. Outside, little blisters of violence and intimidation erupt on the tinder-box streets, and somewhere nearby, Son of Sam is murdering women with wavy brown hair. “Hello from the gutters of New York City,” the serial killer writes in letters to the papers, and though Griffin’s heavy-on-atmosphere, light-on-plot film takes place almost exclusively five floors up from ground level, those gutters feel palpably, oppressively close.

The Wolf Hour” is a peculiar film, compelling in its way due to Watts’ tensile, committed performance as a once-celebrated feminist writer now hemmed in to her dead grandmother’s apartment by paranoia and the demons unleashed by her earlier success. And though there are other players, if there is a second lead in this near-single-location, near-one-woman-show, it is probably Kaet McAnneny’s production design, which oozes menace and neglect so viscerally it might as well be ectoplasm. Khalid Mohtaseb’s supple photography, too, is a small wonder, never cheating the small space, but finding enough maneuverability within it so that a sense of claustrophobia is evoked without the imagery ever feeling constrained. But for all these strengths, and the judicious application of Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi’s nervy score, the film lacks texture where it needs it most — in June’s unraveling psychology.

She has been holed up here for a while — long enough to have bags of trash collecting flies beside the dusty draft of her second book in the living room, a system in place for paying the rent without opening her door and a regular grocery delivery set up with the bodega nearby. Her isolation is almost complete, except for a sinister buzzing intercom that crackles emptily when she answers it, and for a sudden, unwanted visit from her old friend Margot (Jennifer Ehle), who brings literal and figurative fresh air into her life for a moment, before June alienates her again. Aside from that, she forms a testy bond with delivery boy Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and fights off the rapey advances of a cop (Jeremy Bobb). But mostly, she chain-smokes, sweats into her drab tank top and fails to write.

Popular on Variety

For all the hothouse menace Griffin summons, there is something coldly considered about “The Wolf Hour.” As much as we feel June’s anxiety, and the acrid, stultifying weight of the humid air that encases her like wet cement, we never feel for her. Case in point: she replays a videotape of a much more put-together June being condescended to by a male interviewer and matching him jab for jab, until he unleashes the revelation that undoes her entirely and leads to her current, straggly-haired, sweat-stained incarnation. On the one hand, it’s a fairly effective way of cluing us in on backstory while maintaining the rigor of the single-location premise. But her past vicissitudes seem so like they happened to another person (one we never properly meet) that it’s difficult to invest in them. (It doesn’t help that the bombshell TV interview irresistibly recalls the “Simpsons” episode where Bart taunts Lisa with the video where “you can actually pinpoint the second when [Ralph’s] heart rips in half”).

This cautiousness also extends to the film’s themes. Whereas there is a racial and a class element to June’s paranoia, as an unstable, vulnerable white woman from a wealthy background living alone and friendless in a predominantly black, poor, socially volatile neighborhood, the film shies away from a real exploration of that provocative situation. And even her creative struggle is undermined: “The Wolf Hour” takes the notion of literary blockage excessively seriously — as it does everything: The portrayal of the classic ’70s feminist as a being almost defined by her stringent humorlessness is something of a cliché by now. But it also implies that maybe all June really needed to get those juices flowing again was some halfway decent sex, which comes courtesy of an unusually sensitive gigolo, beautifully played by a soft-bodied, gentle-eyed Emory Cohen.

“The Wolf Hour” touches on explosive ideas of racism, sexism, guilt, delusion and urban isolation, so it’s frustrating that, like the gun June obtains at one point, they are handled only warily and then shoved under the floorboards. The general consensus is that the other major 1977 heatwave-set New York City film, Spike Lee’s sprawling “Summer of Sam,” bit off more than it could chew. But “The Wolf Hour” tries to make a five-course meal of the merest morsel, leaving Watts, on eminently watchable form, to grind her teeth on a role far less meaty than it ought to have been.

Shanghai Film Review: 'The Wolf Hour'

Reviewed at Shanghai Film Festival, June 19, 2019. (Also in Sundance Film Festival — NEXT.) Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: An Automatik, Bradley Pilz Prods. production, in association with HanWay Films. (Int'l sales: HanWay Films, London) 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.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Alistair Banks Griffin. Camera (color, widescreen): Khalid Mohtaseb. Editor: Robert Mead. Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi.  

With: Naomi Watts, Jennifer Ehle, Emory Cohen, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Brennan Brown, Jeremy Bobb.

More Film

  • Julia Fox Uncut Gems

    Saoirse Ronan, Julia Fox and More Actors Discuss the Women Who Inspired Them

    In her first film role, Julia Fox blazes into “Uncut Gems” as Julia, the ambitious but loyal mistress of Adam Sandler’s jeweler. It’s a complex character the audience can’t always read. To play Julia, Fox says she had a couple inspirations. “My younger self, for sure,” she admits. “Looking at myself retrospectively, how I survived, [...]

  • Disney's MULAN..Mulan (Yifei Liu)..Photo: Film Frame..©

    Mulan Goes to War in Disney‘s Action-Packed Trailer

    Hua Mulan readies to put her life on the line for her community and family in a new trailer for Disney’s live-action “Mulan.” Based on Disney’s 1998 animated classic, “Mulan” tells the story of a woman (portrayed by Yifei Liu) who poses as a man to fight in the Chinese army. The footage, dropped Thursday, [...]

  • My Grandfather's Demons

    Marmita Films Boards Portuguese Feature ‘My Grandfather’s Demons’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    France’s Marmita Films has joined Sardinha em Lata, Caretos Film and Basque Films as a co-producer on the upcoming Portuguese 2D-stop motion hybrid feature “My Grandfather’s Demons.” Having impressed as a project at Seville’s 3D Wire – now Weird Market – where it won the La Liga Feature Project Award, Nuno Beato’s “My Grandfather’s Demons” [...]

  • And Then We Danced Swedish Georgia

    Western Europe Looks for Oscar Glory

    With wins for Mexico, Chile and Iran in the past three years — and South Korea dominating conversation in the international film Oscar race this year — the Academy has been taking some time off from its usual Europhilia in the category. This year, however, a number of standout contenders look to ensure the Continent [...]

  • fotos filmowy Misz Masz - Kogel

    Why Some European Blockbusters Won't Hit U.S. Screens

    It’s become a Bavarian rite of summer. With Germany and the rest of continental Europe swooning through the dog days of August, local audiences flock to the cinema to catch the latest capers of detective Franz Eberhofer, the star of a crime comedy franchise based on a series of best-selling novels. As temperature soar, so [...]

  • Pain and Glory Penelope Cruz

    Oscar's International Film Race Hits Road Bumps

    “I grew up watching foreign-language films,” director Alfonso Cuarón quipped after his “Roma” won the Oscar for foreign-language film last year. “Learning so much from them and being inspired. Films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘Rashomon,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breathless.’” For foreign-language committee co-chairs Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, who had taken over the position that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content