Unleashing the Wolf

Wolf (1994) is a perennial favorite, a film I’ve been revisiting once or twice a year for a long time now. I suppose that makes it a comfort film, too. My first viewing was in the theater in 1994 and, to paraphrase Rene Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, Wolf had me at hello. The story of mild mannered New York book editor Will Randall’s transformation into an alpha wolf hues even more to the metaphorical side than most werewolf movies of recent decades, with very little in the way of gore or jump scares. At its heart, the film is about aging, masculinity, and the publishing world—all of which can be horrifying, trust me.

So what is it exactly about Mike Nichols’s foray into a classic wolfman story that keeps me coming back? Well, that “classic” element is certainly a big reason why. After the opening Columbia Pictures title card, fog rolls in and covers the entire scene before dissipating to reveal a car driving through the Green Mountains of Vermont. This immediately aligns Wolf with horror and even noir films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Throughout, scenes gorgeously dissolve into one another, characters deliver eloquent and arch dialogue, the sounds of wolves howling fill the soundtrack, and the werewolf transformations are more subtle than what rabid fans of An American Werewolf in London or The Howling might be used to. Of course, I’m one of those rabid fans and even though Wolf is a vastly different werewolf movie than those two, it’s no less effective to me.

Cinefantastique cover artwork by David Voigt (1994).

Nichols and screenwriters Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick are at times clearly homaging films like Universal Pictures’ classic, The Wolfman (1941). Watching Wolf through that lens, as an updated take on a classic werewolf tale, offers a bounty of delights. There’s so much to marvel at! From the first notes of Ennio Morricone’s luscious score, I’m hooked. The way Nichols and cinematographer Giueseppe Rutunno shoot that opening scene, with Will’s car traversing the winding mountain roads, also calls back deliciously to the opening of another Nicholson horror film, The Shining. The locations and set decorations (by Linda DeScenna) are breathtaking, and subtly reinforce the film’s themes; Will’s hotel room is covered with lush green forest wallpaper, nodding to the wolves’ natural habitat. Legendary makeup artist Rick Baker, who pioneered modern werewolf onscreen transformations in An American Werewolf in London, lends his expert hand at the wolf makeup. Like the film itself, the makeup effects are mostly subtle. Will’s slide into full wolf-mode takes its time, progressing a bit more each night over the course of the film.

On top of all of this excellence, the performances are also uniformly stellar, with a cast of pros bringing their best to the proceedings. Jack Nicholson plays against his usual grinning, gregarious type and crafts a subtle, and quietly great, performance. He’s still slyly funny but he also imbues Will with a gentle heart that becomes conflicted the more the beast within him begins to emerge. Watching Nicholson gradually going wolfish after he’s bitten by a wolf at the start of the film is wonderful because the actor seems to be having a devilishly good time at it. This sort of quiet, dignified performance is a good reminder that Nicholson is more than just maniacal grinning and “You can’t handle the truth!”

Michelle Pfeiffer is electrifying as Laura, spitting out some of the film’s most memorable lines (which were ghost-written by the legendary Elaine May). After Will mansplains to her that he understands the kind of woman she is, she shoots back with a death glare, “Sorry, wrong line. I am not taken aback by your keen insight and suddenly challenged by you.” All while munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! Laura is one of my favorite Pfeiffer characters, and one I always want to know more about each time I watch the film. But I love how the film only hints at her past indiscretions enough to let us know that Laura is self-sufficient and pretty damn good at picking locks. Michelle is also as beautiful as she’s ever been here, and this is Michelle Pfeiffer we’re talking about, so that’s really saying something.

The supporting cast is phenomenal. James Spader’s unctuous backstabber Stewart Swinton is as deliciously swarmy as any Spader performance. As the smirking and genial—yet cutthroat—billionaire Raymond Alden, Christopher Plummer is a treasure. Kate Nelligan, David Hyde Pierce, and Richard Jenkins provide wonderfully realized character work and some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Wolf pushes the central metaphor to the forefront, exploring man’s fear of irrelevance in the face of drastically changing times; unleashing the wolf within is his only chance for survival. Even gentle, peaceful men like Will Randall have a wolf inside them, waiting for the right moment to break free. What’s especially fascinating about Wolf is how it shifts perspectives in the last act.

At this point Laura becomes our primary protagonist as we follow her through a journey of horrifying discovery. Will is indeed a wolf, and soon she learns Stuart is as well. At this point in the film we’re squarely aligned with Laura’s plight; suddenly she’s surrounded by two wolfmen and the subtext is now text—this is what women face every single day. If even a nice guy like Will has a dangerous wolf inside of him, then who can Laura trust? Will’s humanity and love for Laura means she’s in no danger from him, but she’s certainly in danger of being collateral damage in the final battle between mentor and protege. That’s why Laura pulling the trigger on the gun that kills Stuart is ultimately the most satisfying conclusion. She didn’t need Will to save her. Her resourcefulness (grabbing a dead security guard’s weapon) saved her life, and Will’s too.

The film’s final scene is equally satisfying. At some point in the closing act’s melee, Laura is bitten by Stuart. Police are now on scene at the Alden estate, assessing the carnage. Laura emerges from her living quarters; it’s immediately evident she’s been changed by the events of that evening. She’s dressed in form-fitting black top and pants, her hair blown out and voluminous, and her makeup is more severe. After dismissing the cops’ questions with ease, to her father’s chuckling delight, she walks off, stopping to note that she can smell the whiskey on the detectives’ breath, which parallels a scene earlier in the film between Will and a coworker. As she walks away the camera perspective changes from behind Laura to in front of her. Nichols intersperses a shot of Will, in full wolf form, howling in the forest. Laura smirks, walking right at us, closer and closer, as Morricone’s haunting score builds. Finally her yellow-green wolf eyes take up most of the screen before the movie fades to black. Stunning. One of my favorite final shots in cinema, and a powerfully evocative last image to leave us with. Laura has been altered by her experience with these wolfmen, but she’s still resilient, just like she’s always been. Women persevere every day, after all, even in the face of an endless parade of wolfmen.

5 thoughts on “Unleashing the Wolf

  1. Michael,
    You have captured why this movie will be one of my new comfort films! I loved the artistic choices that were made and the classic movie techniques that were used to give us a mix of movie past and present. I also loved how the story of becoming a wolf is also a story of how the main character achieves renewed success in an increasingly cut throat business, where his new animalistic qualities are now valued more than his humanistic ones. Becoming a wolf saved his career and his love life, but what does that say about us?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful reply, Rachel! You make so many excellent points, and those themes you touch on are what make the film so enjoyable to me. I’m excited to hear Wolf is now a comfort favorite for you too! My master plan is working! Lol.

      Like

  2. It’s always good to see a new Pfeiffer post here and this is one of your pfinest embellished by some pfabulous artwork. I’d never seen that particular image from David Voight before.
    Wolf seems to get better as the years go by. I’d say it’s one of Pfeiffer’s least appreciated performances, she plays the role of the haughty, hostile, heiress to the hilt.

    Liked by 1 person

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