RELEASE DATE: March 3, 2017
DIRECTED BY: Bart Freundlich
MPAA RATING: R
RUNTIME: 109 minutes
Movies like Wolves occupy a safe middle ground. They are here to show us a story that has been told before with the hope to entertain us in the moment. It’s modest filmmaking, discarding subversive aspirations and daring ideologies in favor of tried and true formulas.
Whether or not it works depends on your tolerance for such things. Writer/director Bart Freundlich admirably shapes his story based on these principles, and while never impressing the audience, he crafts with a sturdy hand and brings about well-rounded performances.
Taylor John Smith stars as Anthony, a gifted basketball player in his senior year at a prep school in New York City. His skills on the court have attracted the attention of scouts from Cornell, and it looks like it might really happen. Yet below the surface of this ideal future, trouble brews at home. Anthony’s father Lee (Michael Shannon), an author and English professor, has begun to act increasingly erratically, disappearing for long periods of time, with bizarre mood swings and uneven behavior.
It turns out that Lee has been hiding a severe gambling addiction that has brought about hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, which he has attempted to conceal from his colleagues and family, particularly his wife Jenny (Carla Gugino). This in turn places a great deal of stress on Anthony, as he’s faced with this personal adversity amidst professional pressure. And life doesn’t put everything on hold because of one issue – other conflicts begin to arise, ranging from his girlfriend to the schools he wants to attend – making him wonder how much one can take.
Wolves is basically the filmmaking equal of comfort food: familiar, uncomplicated and not very good for you if consumed regularly. It’s hard to defend the writing, which is the movie’s weakest point. The script is hokey, plodding and almost unintentionally funny in how it piles problems onto its characters in seemingly endless streams of misfortune. It’s like Freundlich went through his Facebook feed and picked out every post he saw in which a friend or relative detailed a problem in their lives.
That being said, he’s a solid director, especially when it comes to pulling together a trio of talented leads. Michael Shannon’s performance is appropriately strained, as his character — a man of few exterior emotions — loses control of his secrets and lies. Carla Gugino elevates herself above the “suffering wife” role and is a proactive force in every major scene she’s in. And Taylor John Smith is capable of holding his own among these more established performers. He focuses on honest, simple facial expressions, avoiding the pitfalls that could come from overacting off of otherwise emotionally delicate material.
It’s easy to imagine how Wolves could have been killed by its clichés. The movie is blocky as anything, puncturing beats in perfunctorily divided story acts. And yes, there’s nary a truly original bone in its body, as it hits all the beats of the sports drama, including a finale where everything culminates at the championship game. Does the music build and swell on cue? Oh boy, you bet it does. You could play bingo with this thing.
But it’s to the credit of Freundlich and company that a total loss does not happen. There’s this sense of rugged, worn quality to it all. It’s manifest in the acting, the sincerity of the direction and its workmanlike cinematography. When the film ends, you’re not surprised by anything that happened, but it’s hard to call it unsatisfying.
Here is a movie that ages like… nothing at all. It’s vapor, evaporating into the wind, uninterested in splashy moments. Yet like an impossible buzzer beater on the basketball court, it all works just enough, with the pieces lining up and masking the weaknesses in such a way that you’re engaged in that space. And you enjoy it, even if you wish that rush wasn’t a flash in the pan.