June Leigh (Naomi Watts) was once a celebrated author and counter-culture figure but that was a long time ago. Having all but withdrawn from society, she spends her days cooped up in her seedy South Bronx apartment, spending the very last dollars of the advance she received for the follow-up novel some four years previously.
It’s 1977 and the rising temperatures in the city are matched by the building tensions in the neighbourhood. June’s apartment receives various visitors, including her well-meaning sister Margot (Jennifer Ehle), who attempts to get the agoraphobic writer back on course and back out into the real world. But this is also the Summer of Sam and a series of brutal slayings may be getting too close to home for June, who Is increasingly plagued by a mysterious caller to her building who buzzes to be let in but says nothing when asked their identity…
Given the intriguing set up, which instantly establishes the claustrophobic environs of the apartment, the unseen threats outside and June’s precarious mental state, The Wolf Hour could have gone in any number of directions: tense home invasion thriller, lone woman versus killer in a game of cat and mouse, psychological drama to name but three.
Horror fans might be slightly disappointed to learn that it leans very heavily towards the latter category, to the point where it only flirts with familiar genre tropes, but before you dismiss the project entirely there’s a lot to commend it. No little tension is generated as the callers to June’s place reveal their own motivations will drive along the plot in specific, often subtle ways.
Occasionally the supporting characters veer close to caricature – a sweaty, lecherous cop provides an unnerving possible threat but the fact he’s not sharply defined enough makes that turn in the story feel like it was placed there to score a few thriller points. Elsewhere, flashbacks to a television interview with an arts critic Brennan Brown parody these shows well and signpost the root of June’s issues but these feel too obvious given the way the rest of the film is handled.
However, others in the tale are given decent arcs, primarily Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Freddie, always trying to make a few extra bucks on the side to supplement his job delivering groceries for the local store and who will prove key to the third act. Freddie doesn’t transform miraculously over the course of the story, which is refreshing. He’s always in it for himself but there’s also a glimmer of something sympathetic under the surface.
Elsewhere, there’s a leisurely but earned detour in which Margot decides to visit, against the express wishes of June. This series of scenes could have degenerated into an act-off between two acting powerhouses who have both carried various movies and TV shows, but instead offers an interesting, humourous and and gripping portrait of the dynamic between the two sisters. The portion of the film is almost its own short and, of course, Watts and Ehle are reliably excellent.
For all the folk wandering in and out of June’s life, it’s ultimately Watts’ film. On screen for pretty much the entire run time, she’s both mesmerising and frustrating as the author trapped in a prison of her own making. Smart, sweary, downbeat, June is an impressive creation by both writer and performer and it’s Watts who keeps The Wolf Hour on the rails when it threatens to strain credibility or become too melodramatic.
Some will be thrown by the fact that certain plot details which are woven into the fabric of the piece are left hanging, such as the frequent reports of the escalating murder spree which amount to little other than a repeated line of dialogue that could mean everything or absolutely nothing. June’s attempts to throw herself back into her writing are a little too on-the-nose at times as well, with the inevitable, fast-approaching deadline hanging over her head and montages of her smoking/typing away as she tries to ignite her creative spark.
The third act resolution may divide viewers, as June makes a couple of decisions which are ultimately necessary to the plot but might have you thinking “Would she? Could she?”. Still, as the power in the neighbourhood goes out and the ensuing riots escalate, events come to a satisfying dramatic head with June having to confront her fears – both real and maybe imagined.
If the conclusion is a smidge too neat, it’s preferable to a more esoteric ending. We need to see whether or not June makes it out of her situation, not some woolly “perhaps she did, perhaps she didn’t” fade to black. After accompanying June through her ordeal you’ll need the closure as much as she does.
The Wolf Hour will not be for everyone. It’s a drama which merely nods to, rather than embraces, the horror and thriller genres and if you go in expecting jump scares and gore you will be sorely disappointed. However, writer/director Alistair Banks Griffin has crafted an often-compelling study of an artist in turmoil which uses its modest budget to create an authentically scuzzy snapshot of New York in the 1970s. Naomi Watts turns in a commanding performance and if your tastes are of the slow-burn variety then there is much to enjoy.