THE WOLFMAN (Unrated Director’s Cut) – 2010 – Directed by Joe Johnston – Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, and Hugo Weaving.
THE WOLFMAN is one of those movies in which nothing is dramatically wrong, and yet nothing is dramatically right, either. The acting is fine. The direction is professional. The costumes and sets are gorgeous, but that extra positive is balanced by the extra negative that is the score, which is alternately too loud or too invasive or too bland or too derivative or just generally too incorrect for the scene playing in front of it. The pacing could be faster, but this is a story designed to work on atmosphere over adrenaline, and if that’s the story you want to tell, artificially speeding it up would hurt, rather than help, the film’s effectiveness.
This is a film I want to like. I want to like everything I watch, obviously, but I like monster movies, I’m sick of whiny vampires, and werewolves always struck me as the coolest movie monster. Plus, Joe Johnston is a pretty good director (Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III) and he’s currently directing the Captain America movie.
As I said, there’s nothing aggressively wrong about THE WOLFMAN, but it was just not compelling enough to keep one on the couch, despite being markedly better than those ridiculous Francis Ford Coppola produced and inspired horror movies of the early ’90s. It took me two days and probably five hours to get through it; I kept being distracted by the buzzing Blackberry, the dissertation, Arsenal transfer rumors, the dog, checking my sales ranking for The Coming of Frost on Amazon, e-mail, watching and applauding Shep Smith bash both his own network’s role in the Shirley Sherrod mess and the Obama Administration for giving a crap what Glenn Beck thinks, Facebook, lunch, snack time, nap time, vacuuming, this ridiculous Indiana humidity and the rain showers that cool off nothing, Lucy Pinder, downloading free concerts off of NPR’s iTunes All Songs Considered Podcast, texting people about NPR’s iTunes All Songs Considered Podcast, and figuring out what I wanted for dinner.
I settled on elbow macaroni with italian sausage spaghetti sauce. It was okay.
And all the while I kept thinking about whether or not Hollywood should just stop making horror movies for grown-ups until someone can figure out how to do them well. Because this classic formula isn’t working.
What, exactly, is THE WOLFMAN supposed to be?
Is it a horror movie? Ostensibly and traditionally, it is exactly a horror movie, but it’s made for adults and not the teeny bopper crowd so it’s not operating on the level of a squirm-and-shock slasher film where the goal is to make you uncomfortable and then get you to jump out of your seat. The opening sequence gives you a SCARY! moment, but that’s it. After that initial scene, and a foggy, nighttime sequence where Lawrence (Del Toro) gets bit there is nothing in this movie that’s designed to get you to scream and jump and toss your popcorn in the air.
Does that mean it’s a suspense movie? I suppose it wants to be on some level, but it just isn’t the least bit suspenseful. We know everything that’s going to happen – and not because we all know the basic story laid down in the 1941 original, but because we’ve seen enough of these types of movies over the years to know that when Lawrence calls his big mean daddy Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) a monster, he means that he’s literally a monster.
Small things can make a film, and it would have been an immeasurably better idea to have the monstrous father just be an abusive, dark bastard who killed his wife, sent one son to a mental institution and killed the other one because of his own mental demons and not add the bit about how the full moon turns him into a werewolf. Setting a mythic monster against a human monster might have given the film more emotional traction.
At one time these monster myths worked because they took the darker side of human nature and converted it into something supernatural, but we’re all hip to this allegorical trick, and now it’s often more effective to humanize the monsters rather than monsterizing the humans.
If nothing else, such a move would give us a clearer villain because THE WOLFMAN is awash not in moral ambiguity as much as it is a narrative moral confusion. There is no one to root for in this movie.
Take the protagonist, Lawrence Talbot. An accomplished stage actor who returns home to search for his missing bother at Gwen (Blunt), his missing brother’s fiancé’s request, Lawrence has also been subjected to a mental institution in his youth after witnessing his mother’s suicide, which we later learn was actually his werewolfed-up father’s murdering of mommy. Despite misgivings, Lawrence returns home, searches for his brother’s killer, defends mommy’s honor to the gossiping locals, saves a gypsy woman from a werewolf attack, hunts the werewolf into the fog, and then gets bitten by said werewolf. Lawrence is the guy we’re supposed to pull for, then, especially after he gets recommitted to the mental house of horrors and we learn Anthony Hopkins is the werewolf that’s been killing everyone. He’s a sympathetic guy who even feels conflicted about putting the moves on his dead brother’s would-have-been wife.
Lawrence provides his own undoing, however, when he tells his father that the way he should have dealt with his own monstrous change was to have put a bullet in his head. Daddy scoffs because, silly boy, that would have meant no movie. It’s a fine point by the ensnared, newly turned werewolf, but then Lawrence completely fails to apply to his own situation after he escapes (because, silly reviewer, that would have meant no movie). I suppose he rationalizes his failure to eat a bullet by thinking only he can save Gwen and stop Sir John, but Sir John did plenty of rationalizing over the years, too.
One thing I will give WOLFMAN credit for is that Lawrence’s wolf-half isn’t some touchy-feely misunderstood beast looking for the love of some beauty and understanding in a cold, harsh world. He’s a monster, pure and true, who slashes chests, devours flesh and muscle and blood, rips off arms, and has a particular penchant for slicing off his victim’s heads. Even in the film’s climactic moment, when he’s hunted Gwen down and has her pinned to the Earth right next to a high cliff, and Gwen is doing the “I know you’re still in there somewhere routine,” Johnston only allows the briefest glimmer of the human to emerge from deep within the wolf before the beast tries to devour her. You can’t root for an uncaring monster who indiscriminately kills everyone he runs across.
Make no mistake, Lawrence as Wolfman is every bit the monster the locals make him out to be, but we can’t root for their lynch mob, either, because 1. they really should be going after Sir John, and 2. they’re xenophobic dicks just looking to blame and kill anyone to make themselves feel like they have some agency in their continued existence.
There’s Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), the big city cop with the big failed case (the Jack the Ripper slayings) come to investigate the goings on in small town Blackmoor, but he immediately suspects Lawrence, making him another foil for our protagonist. Weaving has a couple of good scenes, but what they did most was make me realize he should be making more westerns.
Which leaves Gwen, who’s a compelling character to some degree, but doesn’t offer either the drive to push the film, or the depth to be worthy of its primary attention. Plus, she has the hots for her fiancé’s brother almost before Ben’s mutilated corpse is dropped in the ground.
If the film wanted to play with all that moral greyness, it could have made something of good people doing bad things and bad people doing understandable things, but WOLFMAN never shows any interest to dive deep beneath it visually appealing surface.
All of which renders WOLFMAN, in the end, a rather grubbily beautiful but predictable costume drama. It leaves me wondering why they spent $150 million to make Remains of the Day with Werewolves. Who did they think was going to go watch this movie? There’s not one bankable star in the film, nor is it made by a bankable director, nor is it a bankable genre. It’s made by solid professionals, but as actors and director they are the equivalent of role players, people brought in to enhance a film instead of carrying it. I can’t imagine they thought the slasher film kiddies would go see this, nor can I imagine they actually thought the Jane Austen or Merchant Ivory crowd would be clamoring for a good monster movie to break out in their next cinematic ode to manners.
Ultimately, THE WOLFMAN is neither scary nor suspenseful, neither adventurous nor humorous, neither compelling nor scintillating. It has to be said, however, that while it is none of those things, it is also neither boring nor terrible. It simply is, simply stuck somewhere in the middle between being worth your two hours and not. It exists as a movie that sets a mood it neither expands nor exploits nor explores.