Review: George MacKay finds the ‘Wolf’ inside for fantasy-drama

A shirtless man on all fours bares his teeth
George MacKay stars as Jacob in director Nathalie Biancheri’s “Wolf,” a Focus Features release.
(Focus Features)

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Nathalie Biancheri’s unsettling, evocative film, “Wolf,” begins with Jacob at his most bare. He stands upright, naked, with his muscular frame firmly planted amid the verdant forest fauna. He rolls on the ground. His soil-smeared skin glistens from the dew. His nostrils flare as he inhales deeply. It’s a recurring dream, as real and as stable as Jacob’s existence. Jacob believes he’s a wolf.

Written and directed by Biancheri, “Wolf,” a surreal narrative exploring identity, is a cross between Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” and Miloš Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The film derives inspiration from the Otherkin subculture. Otherkin do not wholly identify as human. They believe, through reincarnation or trans-species dysphoria, they are derived from animals. Because of his belief, Jacob’s parents commit him to a peculiar psychiatric clinic specializing in “Species Identity Disorder.”

A vicious doctor known as “the Zookeeper” (a ferocious Paddy Considine) runs the facility. He believes this condition is a learned behavior. His treatments involve distributing tablet computers loaded with animal hunting games because he believes technology will bring the patients closer to humanity. The character represents the myriad ways Biancheri remarks upon the cruelest contours of human nature: the apathy toward other living creatures, the practice of othering and bigotry.


Jacob (George MacKay) is thrust into a fight for survival against the Zookeeper. His only partner in this existential tussle is Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), the adoptive daughter of the other facility head played by Eileen Walsh. Both want to escape. But the outside world isn’t too forgiving of people like them. The rare time that reality intrudes upon the glass clinic, two local vandals throw a dead dog through a window (a warning is required for animal lovers).

The inside of the hospital, however, isn’t any more inviting. The Zookeeper employs brutal methods to dispel his patients’ supposed delusions: He dares a young girl named Parrott (Lola Petticrew) to leap from a window to prove she can fly. He forces Squirrel (Darragh Shannon) to climb a tree, breaking the boy’s finger in the process. While the film centers Otherkin, the architecture of the facility seems to serve as a larger metaphor for gender: The stagey play area the patients frolic through emphasizes the performative while the color palette of blue, pink and white is reminiscent of the transgender flag.

MacKay gives a visceral, physical performance. When among other patients, his back is stiff as though, if only he could remain perfectly still, imperfectly human, he might not buckle from quelling his true instincts. While alone in his room, he writhes and squirms as he gulps down half-echoed howls. Since breaking out in Sam Mendes’ heart-pounding World War I drama, “1917,” MacKay has relied on depicting characters repressing their emotions, such as his turn in “True History of the Kelly Gang.” But in “Wolf,” MacKay balances on the edge of something more than primal, more than dangerous.

Jacob falls in love with Wildcat. But as his animal side begins to overtake his human responses, his very existence comes under threat by the Zookeeper, causing the couple to plan a breakout. Sometimes “Wolf” is slight, relying on mystery and metaphor to build suspense, but Biancheri’s sense of narrative adventure imbues this survivalist picture with more than uneasiness. She gives it tenderness. Through the brutal power of MacKay, “Wolf” runs wild with a life-affirming streak of independence.


Rated: R, for some abusive behavior, sexuality, nudity and language

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 3 in general release