Someone — or something — is killing young women in the sleepy town of Snow Hollow. The situation is worse than that, actually: The insidious lupine assailant rips off their limbs, separates their heads, and leaves a gaping hole where their most intimate parts ought to be. Ghastly as that sounds, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” treats these murders as a joke. Or more accurately, it treats them as the setup for a uniquely uncomfortable sitcom of sorts, one that’s less concerned with solving the case than it is with showcasing the odd mix of characters tasked with investigating the crimes.
Those characters include a violence-averse police chief (Robert Forster, offering a variation on Tommy Lee Jones’ introspective “No Country for Old Men” routine in his final role) and a scene-stealing officer (“Garfunkel & Oates” alum Riki Lindhome) whose intuition is every bit as sharp as her comic timing. But the central personality here — the one guilty of sucking up most of the oxygen in the room — is writer-director and star Jim Cummings, who’s handsome in that square-jawed J. Crew model kind of way, but also works hard to show that there’s roiling complexity beneath that superficially appealing exterior.
Cummings’ characters come with baggage, and watching the actor wrestle with his demons is something of an acquired taste. My advice to you: Try to acquire it before you see “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” because attempting to adjust to his wavelength in this context is a mostly frustrating prospect. Cummings became a minor cult-movie figure on account of his prior feature, “Thunder Road,” in which he played an unstable cop working through serious family issues (the death of his mother, a divorce with a messy custody battle) while on the job. That movie won the 2018 SXSW film festival and went on to play Cannes (albeit in the easily overlooked ACID sidebar), which ain’t half-bad for an indie director who made the film in part just to prove he could.
With “Wolf,” Cummings takes a hard right turn into genre territory, which is simultaneously a new challenge for him and an excuse to double down on what he did before, since his character is essentially the same as the one he played in “Thunder Road.” He’s still an unstable cop (though he’s shaved the mustache), still processing family issues (now it’s Dad’s time to go), although now he’s juggling alcoholism along with anger management issues. The drinking thing adds an interesting wrinkle to his character, John Marshall, suggesting that he could be the monster he’s searching for.
Before John appears, “Wolf” focuses on a young couple who rented a cabin (decorated with more creepy taxidermy and stray animal pelts than the one in “Evil Dead”) for a weekend getaway. Horror movie formula says that one or both of these beauties will bite it, but the movie is so awkwardly edited that there’s no suspense to speak of, and even less clarity on what goes down during the off-camera attack — to the extent that it’s not evident whether the boyfriend (Jimmy Tatro) survives until he reappears almost half an hour later.
“Wolf” wants the mystery to center on what kind of sicko (i.e., man or wolf?) is killing these young women, but other questions loom even more urgently: What is the killer doing to his victims? Why is Cummings being so coy about showing either the crime or the corpses? And just how many nights does a full moon last anyway? (There’s also the matter of the bizarro editing. In clunky horror-movie fashion, “Wolf” introduces each victim shortly before she’s killed, but in some cases, he goes all Nicolas Roeg and jumbles the chronology, intercutting one attack with the character’s autopsy and funeral, à la the nonlinear sex scene in “Don’t Look Now,” where shots of the duo getting dressed punctuate their lovemaking.)
Audience confusion aside, John is determined to solve this case, stepping in when his sheriff dad (Forster, who gets a few decent scenes) seems too weak to deal with what appears to be the worst slew of homicides Snow Hollow has ever seen. Cummings gives nearly as much screen time to fellow cop Julia Robson (Lindhome), who’s a far more efficient investigator — especially since she’s not losing her cool in every exchange.
That’s sort of Cummings shtick, carried over from the previous film, in which he seemed to be undergoing a slow-motion meltdown: Like a low-rent Vince Vaughn, he’s constantly shouting at people and/or threatening violence, as in the AA meeting where he’s introduced. John stands up and shares with the group that sometimes he feels like renting a backhoe and letting it tear through his ex-wife’s house.
It’s hard to tell just how self-aware Cummings is about John’s shortcomings. Are his imperfections meant to endear him to us? Are we supposed to admire the way he overreacts to finding his daughter Jenna (Chloe East) making out with her boyfriend in a parked truck, just after she was nearly attacked by what looks like a werewolf? There are hints peppered throughout the script that Cummings doesn’t condone the kind of machismo his character exhibits (as when Jenna asks, “Do you think maybe this could have something to do with your mom leaving you when you were young?”), although the jokes seem to be aimed at bros who identify with John.
The movie does get some zingers in, and it balances the humor with nicely atmospheric creepy small-town vibes (courtesy of DP Natalie Kingston), but the tone is all over the place and a far cry from the “Fargo”-y Coen brothers feel Cummings seems to be going for. If this is meant to be a commentary on modern male fragility, he handled that better in his debut. “Wolf” actually does that thing we all hope second features won’t: It reveals that idiosyncrasies of an unproven director’s debut weren’t quirks so much as weaknesses — a disappointment for those of us hoping lightning might strike twice for the “Thunder Road” helmer.