Sunday, March 14, 2010
Every director dreams of updating their favorite old neglected movies. Universal’s 1941 horror film, The Wolf Man invokes such sentiment for many Hollywood types because the sad tale of Lawrence Talbot has never really stuck despite several recurring features about the character. I’m not sure if this remake is a dream pitch for Joe Johnson (Jumanji, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) because he only got involved after Mark Romanek left the project. Then again, I doubt this matters much to a man who knows how to dumb down any film and make big bucks in the process with one simple formula: bigger, faster, dumber.
We first encounter Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) as he returns home to Talbot Hall because of his brother’s gruesome death. He isn’t readily recognized by the manservant and his father, Sir John (Sir Anthony Hopkins) eyes him rather suspiciously. Lawrence is also back to meet his brother’s wife Gwen (Emily Blunt) who asks him to investigate the manner of the death. It is rumored to be an animal killing and the locals are frenzied with panic. That is in contrast with the calm of his father’s mansion, which mirrors the state of their relationship: run down and left carelessly attended. Sir John doesn’t outwardly seem to mind the state of things and from the start we almost suspect why. But the state of Lawrence’s mind remains closed to us and, unfortunately, remains so for much of the film.
In the midst of this family strife Lawrence becomes the victim of a wolf bite and the indifference that the town was treating him with turns into outright aggression. Only his noble family name keeps them in check but finally, after much tension, his father yields and he is locked up for fear he will become a werewolf when the moon is full. Here the film encroaches upon classicism by in one hand having Sir John defend his son then in another betraying him to psychiatric evaluation. In this interplay, Sir John is in control up to the point where he visits Lawrence in his cell and, finally, reveals all. It is a calculation meant to break his son’s mental resolve but The Wolfman literally lets off its leash when it doesn’t. This leads into a series of events that begin with the obligatory beast transformation scene. It’s neatly done with ghoulish effects but once Lawrence is away from any moral constraint we begin to lose interest in him. He becomes that monster, an uncouth beast that strays away from the classicism that he was brought up in.
This leads to what sinks The Wolfman: its determination as to when Lawrence should exude bestial behavior and when he should not. Johnson doesn’t patiently dwell on either scenario though because there is action to dish out. And, sure enough, there is no other type of night in the village so we get to rush straight to all the gore and heavy innuendo. And, as no one apparently remembered that there was a man-killing beast before Lawrence got bitten, the lack of awareness of the townspeople plays out expectantly. This doesn’t include the Gypsies though, who, of course, get the xenophobic blame.
This being a Joe Johnson film, The Wolfman swerves into patented goofiness instead of blossoming into an adult thriller. The writing of the film—courtesy of David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker—is shockingly wooden. This is disappointing because both are responsible for two good films that The Wolfman tries hard to be all at once: Road to Perdition and Sleepy Hollow. There are shades of Poe’s novel, The Fall of the House of Usher thrown in as well. A lot of this feels like filler though, especially the scenes where townspeople are involved because you already know they’re not integral to the plot. Lawrence’s beastly destruction is expanded emptily upon them. So as they flee before him--ensnared in his pointless rage--we patiently wait for the inevitable outcome.
Which-- when the film finally centers on it, starts to unravel tangibles that go beyond the average horror flick. The film builds upon the issue of familial tension but once there, Johnson leaks the air out with less-than-convincing gaffes as well as Lawrence’s psychological issues. Benicio Del Toro doesn’t translate well into this character. Here, buried under Thriller-like make-up, we don’t feel his torture. Neither can Hopkins light any spark with scenes involving other characters. As Gwen, Emily Blunt is a fresh revelation. She is easily the most believable character trapped in the dire circumstances here. She stands between the family and sure ruin, eviscerating pain superbly as a woman grieving for a dead husband while battling growing sexual tension for his brother. The final scene, when his need literally has caught up to her own, is cheese-free only because of the silent terror Blunt is able to convey with her painted face, giving greater credence to the terror that courses through her body.
For therein she comes to the pivotal moment of The Wolfman: confrontation with the beast. It is an all-too obvious bloodlust that she realizes must be handled. As the terror creeps up on her incrementally Johnson’s close-ups are far more effective than at any other point in the film, a telling indicator that he’d been plodding down the wrong path all along. As Gwen arrives at her conclusion, Lawrence is ever so gently betrayed again. ‘Look at these eyes, you know who I am’, Gwen tell him as he closes in. The words are empty because the moon is full and her voice thick with resignation and panic. The Wolfman thus revolves around choices and the quickness of them. If his father has realized this at the earliest stage of the film then it is left up to Gwen to arrive to such a conclusion lastly and most decisively. Alas, between both controllers of his fate, Lawrence gets irretrievably lost. So too does the film; no matter how hard he tries to reach out to be included.