“The Wolfman” is a strange hybrid, which may be somewhat appropriate. It’s a film that feels endlessly tampered with in many places, a gothic horror film with decidedly modern tendencies, and I can’t say I think it all hangs together are a movie. But there are many things I like about it, and I would suggest that if you’re at all interested in it, see it theatrically. It’s more good than bad, and when it really gets its wolf on, it does so with a shaggy, deranged glee that left me laughing.
There was a much-publicized last-minute switch of director on the film, from Mark Romanek to Joe Johnston, and there was some not-so-secret turmoil with Rick Baker, the legendary make-up artist hired to bring the classic Jack Pierce design into the 21st century, but none of that really matters if the film works, right?
There is an interesting surreal sense of mood to the film. From the way Benicio Del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot is established as a very successful actor who spent much of his life in America to the way the attack on the gypsy camp is handled to a crazy sequence in an asylum, much of the film is handled like a fever dream. Johnston’s moon stalks the film like a psycho killer, always on the wax, and his settings are pure backlot, unreal and impressionistic. Sir Anthony Hopkins, starring as Sir John Talbot, lives alone in a house that’s run-down and abandoned, an external expression of the hollow heart of his family, and the local village seems to mainly consist of a tavern where people sit around and tell stories about horrible murders. I don’t think there’s anything remotely “realistic” about the movie, but I’d argue no one was aiming for realism.
The story unfolds with an inevitability, and part of that is because it feels like it’s been cut to the bone, especially in the first half-hour or so. In the opening scene, Ben Talbot (Simon Merrills) is hunted by something big and furry, and killed terribly, leading his fiancee Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) to write to his long-removed brother Lawrence and asking him to come home to help out. When he arrives at Blackmoor, the family estate, he finds his father, played by Hopkins, rattling around the place like some loose change with only his creepy Sikh manservent Singh (Art Malik) for company. There are stories about how the gypsies outside of town might be behind the murder, or some escaped bear, or maybe something more sinister, and there is some bad blood between Lawrence and Sir John over something that happened in the past, something about Lawrence’s mother and her death. By the time Lawrence gets atttacked and changed and gives in to his family curse, it’s barely even act two, and the rest of the film is just a series of monster scenes and remorse, monster scenes and remorse, rinse and repeat, capped off by a side order of daddy issues served up hot and hairy.
The performers all do well with what they’ve got here. Benicio Del Toro never seems particularly tormented by his history or by being attacked by a wolf or by what he learns about his family. In fact, he seems sort of numb, except in the moments where he gets to change and become an animal, at which point he finally seems comfortable in his own skin. His attraction to his brother’s fiancee is played as a sad residual echo that gradually builds, and that’s almost all that Blunt is given to play. Even so, she and Del Toro try to make it work, try to find some subtext to play. Hopkins and Hugo Weaving are both more successful, with Hopkins chewing on the scenery, quite literally by the end of the film, and Weaving playing real-life detective Abberline, the same person that Johnny Depp played in “From Hell,” the man who ran the Ripper investigation for a time. They both find a lot of juice in their material, and they manage to get the most out of their screen time.
There are some truly deranged dream sequences, and some editing rhythms that are genuinely unsettling. But overall, because the film stays on the surface, none of it seems to stick. It’s not that I disliked the experience, but it’s not hanging with me at all. The film is almost all anti-climax, and the staging in the big finish of the film is too flat to really pay off all the narrative threads that the film puts in motion. The score by Danny Elfman is suitably florid, but like the film itself, it feels manhandled, chopped up. The use of CGI for the transformations in the film is not inherently a problem, but it’s not as accomplished as the practical make-up, so the two of them never feel fully married. That’s a problem. I think the blend of the two is the best way to accomplish truly magical things on film these days, but the seams can’t show. That would be something that I would say is true of the film in general: the seams are too visible, and as a result, “The Wolfman” is a film that is hard to hate, but just as hard to defend as successful, a frustrating almost. If you want to see a big hairy monster rip some heads off, spend the money to see it theatrically, but if you’re going to be upset by something that is more parts than sum, maybe you should sit this one out.
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