It’s Summer 1977, and we’re in a crummy South Bronx apartment. In fact, we never go anywhere else, as Alistair Banks Griffin‘s The Wolf Hour has the minimalist setting and wordy revelations of a one-act play. The entirety of the film keeps us within these dingy and sweltering walls, trapping us as Naomi Watts‘ June Leigh is trapped by her own fear.
June was once a promising counter-culture novelist, but after the controversy of her first novel resulted in personal tragedy, she’s become paranoid and agoraphobic, refusing to leave her apartment even to take out the trash or get her own groceries. She sits on her windowsill, watching the small dramas that unfold on the streets below, chain-smoking and pointedly ignoring the stacked, typewritten pages that once constituted the first draft of her follow-up novel. Meanwhile, we hear headlines on her radio or TV as Son of Sam terrorizes the city, preying on women who look an awful lot like June, haunting the boroughs’ streets. “Hello from the gutters of New York,” he writes to the newspaper.
The Wolf Hour is as much, or more, an examination of the artistic process as it is the story of one woman’s fear of a prolific serial killer. We learn through a visit from June’s oldest friend Margot (Jennifer Ehle) that June is brilliant, the sort of staggering natural talent that almost feels like an injustice to the rest of us (like Margot) who have to toil for recognition. But the pressures of her phenomenally successful first book, coupled with the fallout after its publication, have left her paralyzed, stuck, trapped inside herself. June’s world is so internalized, but thanks to clever staging, the window theatrics and visits from outside guests like Margot, Freddie who delivers June’s groceries (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and an escort June hires to ease her solitude (Emory Cohen, who’s especially great here), her world never feels static to us.
And so much of that, of course, is due to Naomi Watts, who gives a remarkably forceful performance for a woman who barely leaves her windowsill and almost never changes her shirt. The Bronx – once home to June’s beloved late grandmother, who made her home a safe place for June in times of turmoil – is changing beneath June’s window, turning into a “war zone,” and June’s door buzzer goes off two to three times a night, but no one ever responds. Sure, it could just be kids messing around, but June’s convinced someone’s trying to intimidate her, to punish her for her hubris in publishing that first book, in enjoying its success before it destroyed everything. We see all of this play out in Watts’ extraordinarily expressive eyes, in her face and posture, understanding more about her than The Wolf Hour ever has to put into words.
The Wolf Hour‘s definitely nodding to Hitchcock here – surely it’s not a coincidence that June’s last name is “Leigh,” like one of Hitchcock’s best-known leading ladies, though the film The Wolf Hour evokes best is obviously Rear Window, with June’s emotional disability mirroring Jeff Jefferies’ physical one. But The Wolf Hour is a much grimier, sweatier film than any of Hitchcock’s more fastidious horror. It’s a tense movie, quiet and menacing, but it’s also one about redemption. The Wolf Hour tells us that our art can lay us bare, leave us vulnerable, even hurt those around us – but it can also save us, cleanse us, give us the courage to leave the cages we’ve built for ourselves.