Tracing a sequence of small moments in the lives of two methadone clients in Nova Scotia, the debut feature by director Ashley McKenzie, is something like a series of small disidentifications, feints, and tweaks on various film formulas. Its obvious referents are the films of the Dardennes brothers, the heroin-film sub-genre, and the general North American indie production mode, and in broad strokes McKenzie plays by their rules, be they stylistic, narrative, or otherwise. Yet one quickly starts to realize that, above all else, McKenzie is committed to the idea of the minor and the marginal: minor lives, performances, stylistic deviations. This isn’t meant to disparage the film. If anything, Werewolf embodies a less heroic but no less legitimate approach to filmmaking that takes all of cinema’s material components and their effects seriously, singularly attuned to the power of small deviations and moments in order to shape a new perspective on realism. This plays out in the moment-to-moment unfurling of the film, subtly and quietly shifting our relation to characters and situations, but one can also look at Werewolf in a film-historical context as a reframing of how we consider the lineage and tools of the so-called “neo-neo-realist” movement, that early 2000s spate of films epitomized by Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart.
Methadone is the first swerve: the film deftly opens on the moment after the typical heroin film has ended, avoiding the histrionics and the moralizing associated with the representation of heroin addiction. Or was it even heroin? The film doesn’t specify what opiate the protagonists were previously using. It doesn’t change much in terms of the narrative conventions of the heroin-film, though, with our two leads Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Nessa (Bhreagh MacNeil) scrounging up money by offering to mow lawns in an attempt to get their daily fix (and to pay off their growing tab at the clinic). That lawnmower is as much of a Dardenne-esque motif as is the camera’s constant shallow focus and tendency to stay (very) close to Blaise and Nessa’s faces. But both that camera and that lawnmower end up assuming interesting roles through the film’s shifting in and out of narrative focus. The lawnmower, of course, breaks. There’s some business about fixing it, but soon it just disappears. It’s the Dardennes without the pomposity, shying away from their Catholic insistence on iconography and salvation, instead posing the question of what an icon does when its iconography is exhausted and it becomes a useless lawnmower again. Blaise and Nessa drift on, the lawnmower physically and thematically abandoned.
The cinematography also gives us a classically hyper-restricted focus, kept tightly to our leads’ point-of-view, slipping through a world that appears only in specific details and moments: an ice cream dispenser, the recurring image of a methadone bottle being refilled, a tense and vague facial expression. But again, McKenzie’s carefully controlled craft manages to yield both the trope and a deviation from it. The camera’s near-constant close-up is often a cropped frame with a face moving in and out of it, our attention toggling between the graphic effect of a striking framing and the sudden arrival of a clearly discernible face.
It’s all abetted by the wonderfully modulated twin lead performances, with the newcomer actors giving us exactly what we hope for in the clenched-jaw expectations of the current down-and-out non-actor vogue. But their performances are also marked by a measured gentleness, a performative illegibility that opens up narratological possibilities that seem farther than those suggested by the fairly straightforward narrative—he is not doing well, she is doing somewhat better. This makes things difficult. When Blaise angrily demands that a man let him mow his lawn, we see drug rage, justified class fury, and a masculinity frustrated by its own limitations, but none of it is as intense as we expect, leavened by a certain resignation, a certain kindness, a certain care. He’s neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic, but instead moves fluidly between the two. His neediness erupts into quiet misogyny against Nessa as she moves towards something resembling stability in a job at an ice cream parlor. His desperation approaches the abject as he overdoses on methadone, but the film refuses to leave him there, as the punchy pixelated colors and sounds of the game Space Invaders he is trying to play are overlaid atop his euphoric and collapsing visage, in a weirdly charming variation on the staple “overdose scene.” The misery of the situation undercut by indisputably funny 8-bit aliens, abjection becoming something gestured towards rather than taken up as a theme. An overdose is awful, of course, but here it becomes awful in a practical rather than strictly moral sense.
All of this ultimately constitutes the essential strength of Werewolf, a film that engages meaningfully with a character’s misogyny, or with everyday iconography, or with drug dependence and overdose, without any one element overpowering the work or the characters. Its attention to small objects, framed in close-up with actors out of focus in the background, at first reads as an affectation or an indication of a grander aesthetic project. But as the film proceeds, this begins to feel more like a simple choice made to highlight the material and the practical as things that have bearing on our characters’ lives in mundane ways. One feels that one has seen many films like it—and of course, its references are clear and many—but at the same time it feels somehow sui generis in its unassuming subtlety. With heroin addiction an ever-increasing hot-button issue, Werewolf wisely and sweetly returns opioids to a spot as one of many vectors in a certain slice of a certain life. Her frame and her script are at once tightly constricted and refreshingly loose, exceedingly clear without over-determining.
I worry that it sounds like damning with faint praise to speak of this careful, delicate film as a minor work, but perhaps that speaks more to the kinds of movies we generally choose to elevate in critical discourse than any judgement of the film itself. We need art films that are made with attention to form in less showy ways, in ways that are unconcerned with providing a lens through which to see the film as part of an oeuvre or a holistic aesthetic project, but instead, that emphasize how we as viewers respond to the film as it spools out on the screen in front of us. Mindful of cinematic histories while neither falling too deeply under their sway nor staking an unearned claim as a vanguard, it’s the sort of film that makes a viewer curious to see where McKenzie will go from here, a statement of intent that nevertheless offers little clear indication of future intent.