Tj Marine’s directorial debut is a film of floating, disparate story elements that places all its hope in them coalescing and co-mingling at the end, when all the threads can finally be stitched together. What begins as a run-of-the-mill domestic drama about a housewife feeling trapped and browbeaten by her overly controlling and sexually aggressive spouse unfolds into a New-Age cult subplot that messily ties At Night Comes Wolves together over several extended and diverting expository flashbacks and reveals, all of which serve to hijack the initial framing of the film.
As Tj Marine works to expand his baseline story and play with his chronology over the course of the film’s brief runtime, the throughline becomes harder to see through the exposition and even harder to care about. While the kernel of At Night Comes Wolves’s narrative is fairly straightforward, its incessant jumbling of its timeline doesn’t add complexity and nuance so much as it does detract from that initial kernel.
The film’s opening segment centering on the unhappy and borderline abusive marriage of Leah Schafer (Gabi Alves) sets At Night Comes Wolves toward a predictable trajectory. Marine spends time foregrounding Leah’s fragile emotional state as she comes to understand and dread the barrier between herself and her distant husband, Daniel (Jacob Allen Weldy). Unloving, cold and sexually demanding of her to a degree that makes her visibly disgusted, Leah resolves to leave him and their life behind. Marine’s austere style allows Leah’s tumultuous home life to be read as more sinister than simple domestic strife, and through Alves’ performance, Leah comes across as vulnerable but assured in her decision to cut all ties.
In her spontaneous flight from Daniel – running out of gas and money with no clothes or destination in mind – she finds herself prey to the emotional manipulation of Mary May (Sarah Serio), a recruiter for a New-Age cult that squats in a nearby forest. At her most vulnerable, Leah agrees to meet their leader Davey Stone (Vladimir Noel), who charms her with empty platitudes about her feeling like she is missing something and how he can help her unlock parts of her consciousness that she never knew she had – standard rhetoric for your poorly conceived fictional cult. The scope and purpose of Davey’s cult is never explicitly explored, but its introduction into the story is where the film derails and never finds its way back on track.
Where once Leah’s emotional journey from one scenario of her being deceived to yet another was what held the film together, At Night Comes Wolves fully embraces the backstory of its fictional cult as its main story. By sidelining Leah as the protagonist, relegating her as a footnote in the sudden focus on the cult’s story and effectively kneecapping the flow of the film with extensive expository flashbacks, the film clouds itself with narrative digressions that make the lead into the climax a slough.
It is telegraphed from the onset that Daniel is somewhat involved with this cult in some capacity, and through the film’s multiple, poorly integrated plot dumps, At Night spells it all out in a way that shaves off any intrigue or mystery that could’ve been extracted from this story. As the emotional core of the film, Leah’s assertive break from her cult-influenced husband has been placed in the backseat for a power struggle between multiple sects of this central cult; the film sets up a series of threads that don’t so much intertwine at the end as they do awkwardly collide. Even more frustratingly, the film routinely cuts over to two unrelated characters who never affect or relate to the story we’re watching… until the very end when the film attempts a desperate “twist” that feels as tacked on as they come.
The fundamental failing of At Time Comes Wolves is its lack of focus as it juggles way more exposition than is necessary. When the emotional weight of its protagonist is all but cut loose and we get lost in the weeds of its own excessive backstory and setup, viewers may feel as though they are left hurtling toward an ending with plenty of facets but none of the drama.