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.
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.