Monday 23 March 2020

The Wolf Hour (UK/USA 2019: Dir Alistair Banks Griffin)

Self isolation may become the new trend in movies, with art reflecting life. The Wolf Hour was made way in advance of the present pandemic, and the self isolation in this case is psychologically, rather than virus driven.

Naomi Watts is June Leigh, a counterculture novelist whose first book, 'The Patriarch,' brought her fame and notoriety. With its central character a thinly veiled version of her own father, a man investigated by the police for criminal activities, the book caused June to be disowned by her family - a fact we learn from a video taped interview with the author which she re-watches. As a result she's holed up in her late grandmother's apartment in South Bronx, imprisoned within those four walls due to crippling agoraphobia which may or may not have been brought on by the post novel trauma. "After everything that happened, I figured this was a safe place," she reasons.

But just in case you were thinking that the Bronx isn't so bad these days, The Wolf Hour is set in July 1977, during the sweltering heatwave and amidst the panic caused by the the David Berkowitz 'Son of Sam' murders. And it's within this setting of brawls - and eventual looting - on the streets, menacing landlords demanding rent payment, and relentless heat, that we watch June mentally unravel as she desperately tries to overcome her writers' block to deliver a follow up novel to her publisher. 'Safe' is definitely not the word to use.

Not since Catherine Deneuve prowled her Kensington flat in Roman Polanski's 1965 movie Repulsion has there been such an intense study of closeted mania as Watts shows here. June lives surrounded by chaos, her life a pit of inertia. Her friend Margot (Jennifer Ehle) visits and tries to get order in her life - " I keep expecting to find a dead body, " she says of the state of the apartment - and, because of where she lives, also gives her a gun for protection - but June is having none of it, burning a draft of the new book and even snatching out of Margot's bag a first edition of June's novel which she was taking for safe keeping. Apart from occasional calls to people to lend her money or to order groceries, her only contact is Freddie the delivery boy (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and, later in the movie, Billy (Emory Cohen), a 'midnight cowboy' who June pays for sex: interestingly the closest she comes to having a functioning relationship, albeit briefly, is with him.

Griffin's movie succeeds because it offers no easy answers or handy explanations (a comment equally applicable to his last feature, the langurous Two Gates of Sleep from 2010). Leigh is an extremely damaged person but the nature of that damage is only hinted at in the psychological impact of the publication of her first novel. Her search for herself with the confines of her flat and the pain involved in that - it is, for example, a major feat for her to take out the typewriter she's locked away in her wardrobe and simply put it on the table - mirrors the increasing anxiety of the city, although its concerns are merely a supporting player here unlike, say, Spike Lee's 1999 movie Summer of Sam.

Watts is sensational as June; every drag of her cigarette and twitch of her lips conveys the depth of her condition; visitors to her apartment constantly question why she would choose to live there, and Billy also asks why she needs to pay for sex, but the audience has enough information at this point not to need to ask the same thing; "If I stay in here I won't do any more damage out there," confirms June. There is perhaps a question mark over the rather excitable last reel, coming as it does after the slowburn intrigue of the rest of the film, but it's a powerful and only partly redemptive finale, and Griffin, who also wrote the piece, should be praised for not going for the obvious and deploying the weapon given to June by Margot.

The Wolf Hour won't be for everybody. It's a moody and somewhat coolly observed character study that avoids flashiness at every turn. But I found it gripping and oddly hypnotic, and strongly recommend it.

The Wolf Hour is available on Digital HD from 23rd March.

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