The Wolfman: Pretty Cool Wolf, Pretty Dull Man

Monster movies, at their heart, are about the battle between a good man and the evil monster within. The Wolfman has all of the necessary ingredients to make a terrific monster film. You have gorgeous visuals, you have a list of top-notch actors, and you have makeup effects by Rick Baker, who is bar none the best makeup man ever. Everything was in place for a moody, suspenseful Wolfman film. The chief problem is that the heart of the film, the conflict between man and beast, never hits home. Joe Johnston gives us some great action, gross transformations, gory deaths, creepy moonlit moors– everything to keep the beast element totally satisfying. While the film is a fine diversion full of the jump-scares that people want in a horror/suspense film nowadays, Benicio Del Toro is miscast and, even more tragically, given nothing to do. How can we truly care about the wolf if we don’t care at all about the man?

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is a British-born actor who moved to America– a complicated excuse for casting an actor without an accent as the hero– touring London when his brother is found dead and mauled. He hasn’t been home since witnessing his mother’s suicide, and his father John (Anthony Hopkins) is a fairly cold-hearted eccentric who didn’t make matters any easier. Lawrence vows to his brother’s fiancee Gwen (Emily Blunt) that he will find whoever or whatever did this. His brother was serving as a liaison to a nearby gypsy camp, whom everyone blames for whatever dark creature did this horrible deed. Despite being warned that the full moon is when bad things happen to people in this town, Lawrence sets out to the gypsy camp late at night under the full moon. Once he gets bitten, he starts to see things… and feel suspiciously strong… and Gwen’s neck has never looked more appetizing…

The attack on the gypsy camp is without question the most fun part of the film. It satisfies both the horror and action aficionados, giving plenty of sudden deaths and terrible gore while keeping the tempo of the scene very quick. One police officer looks into a a gypsy’s wagon and sees a dead body. He reaches his hand in to check the pulse, and a sudden clawing gesture comes from the shadows inside. One swipe from the werewolf, and an entire chunk from the officer’s hand is now missing. He should have run at that point, but instead he gets claws that pierce through the bottom of his jaw and come out of his mouth before dragging him into the wagon to become a new snack. I can imagine some of you reading this description and thinking, “Yes! This is the hard R-rated Wolfman film I have been waiting for!” And for certain, some folks will be pleased just due to the level of gore that Johnston packs relentlessly into the film. It never lingers too long but it delivers the goods– disgusting without being masochistic.

The film also boasts two terrific performances. Anthony Hopkins… well, he lives for the role of the eccentric old man. He has a twisted dark side, which Hopkins chews into with relish. Early on, it’s made clear that John Talbot has a dark secret, which I won’t spoil for you, but anyone with half a brain can guess it solely from the trailer. There are few men in the acting world that can do dark more charismatically than Anthony Hopkins. You also have to believe that John is a man who could kick your butt if necessary, and Hopkins delivers– he actually looks bigger here than he has in a long time. The other great performance is Hugo Weaving as the inspector sent from Scotland Yard. Usually the investigator is the most thankless role in films like this, but Weaving shows once again that he’s one of the most underrated actors working. He commands the screen effortlessly, and finds a way to be charming in his deadpan straight-forwardness. Perhaps there’s an element to the shadows of his performance as Agent Smith from The Matrix, or perhaps it’s just his ability to turn a phrase in the driest of dry manners, but he brings a believable human element to a film otherwise lacking in that department.

One would think that a character actor with dark tendencies like Benicio Del Toro would be an easy home run as The Wolfman, but he turns out to be all wrong for the part. Del Toro’s specialty is introspective, brooding characters. Unfortunately, Lawrence Talbot needs to be more expressive– they live in a repressed society, and here he is, a famous actor, who is less charismatic than literally every other character. How did he achieve fame as an actor? His social skills are nonexistent. In scenes when he is supposed to be more brooding, we’re so uninterested in his plight that any sort of haunted look in his eyes deflects off of us. The most that we can care for this character is as much as we care for any random stranger we know nothing about. There’s no understanding, no specific sympathy. Also wrong is Emily Blunt. She plays cold, internalized characters as well, so why would she be cast as a woman who’s supposed to be lovable? We only see Lawrence’s brother for one scene, and that one scene is enough for us to wonder why they’re together. They must have heard she was in a different British period piece and cast her based on typecasting. Newsflash: not all British women are cold and unexpressive. I can only imagine what someone like Abbie Cornish would have done in this role– perhaps then we would have cared about her anguish and her and Lawrence might have had an iota of chemistry.

Because the main “love story”– I used quotation marks since I’m not certain one can even call the total lack of chemistry between the two main characters love– doesn’t work, the movie never reaches the next level. For all of the great makeup work and gory violence, for all of the hammy supporting roles that are so much fun to watch, for all of the shadowy misty nights that are so beautifully shot, the human element never reaches where it needs to be. Monster movies nowadays are failing at capturing the struggle. The Hulk movies were either too man-oriented (the first one) or not man-oriented enough (the second one), and most others just focus on the action and the transformation effects. The monster movies of old never ignored that human element. Even if it was a creature without a true human alter ego, like Dracula or Frankenstein, they still showed moments of wrestling with the terrible urges, clinging to maybe a twinge of regret that they succumb to their struggles. They’re villains with hearts. In The Wolfman, they make the error of assuming we’ll care for the protagonist automatically just because of the incredible plight he’s dealing with. Perhaps some won’t be bothered by the lack of development for the main character, because they’ll feast on the gore and special effects. I was left hungry for more.

~ by russellhainline on February 23, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Wolfman: Pretty Cool Wolf, Pretty Dull Man”

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