An intriguing film named “Wolfen,” which is not about
werewolves but is about the possibility that Indians and wolves can exchange
souls, has crept stealthily into several Chicago theaters. Despite the fact
that it stars Albert Finney, was directed by Michael Wadleigh (“Woodstock”),
and is an uncommonly intelligent treatment of a theme that is usually just
exploited, the movie arrived without much advance publicity. If the subject
interests you, move fast, before “Wolfen” closes.
The story begins with the mysterious killing of
a politician, his wife, and their chauffeur. There are lots of suspects and
lots of motives, but the clues are puzzling: the bodies were slashed to
ribbons, but apparently not with blades of any known metal. Could the wounds
have been caused by teeth?
Albert Finney, a cop with assorted psychological
problems, is put on the case, teamed up with another officer (Diane Venora).
They begin to gather a fact here, a hunch there. Could wolves have done this
damage? Scientists discover wolf hairs on several of the dead bodies that begin
to turn up. But wolves are supposed to be extinct in the East, and certainly
within New York City.
The movie intercuts the police investigation
with imaginative scenes shot from the wolves' point of view. These are
fast-moving tracking shots; the camera swoops down streets at the eye-level of
a wolf, pausing, taking cover, following one track and then another. Wadleigh
suggests a wolf's senses with special optical effects in which objects with a
scent also seem to shimmer.
The movie's narrative style is brooding. Finney
comes into contact with an assortment of eccentric people (scientists, cops,
morgue attendants, pathologists), and the trail eventually leads to a group of
American Indians employed as high-steel workers. There is a breathtaking
confrontation to top of a bridge. What do the Indians know about wolves? Is it
possible that they practice ancient rituals to turn into wolves? Or do they
just share spiritual communion with them?
“Wolfen” develops a strong, angry theme about
ecological and human waste. We learn that the wolves make their headquarters in
a ruined section of the South Bronx that resembles a bombed-out wasteland.
Their original victim, the politician, had just visited there for a
groundbreaking ceremony, vowing to "renew" the area. In killing him,
the wolves are merely exercising their territorial imperative.
What is perhaps most interesting about “Wolfen” is
that the story remains plausibleÑgiven its basic assumptions, of course. This
is not sci-fi, fantasy or violent escapism. It's a provoking speculation on the
terms by which we share this earth with other creatures.
This seriousness reportedly did not impress the
releasing studio, United Artists, which would have preferred a sleazy
exploitation picture (and is releasing “Wolfen” as if it were one). That's a
shame. Love, thought, care and craftsmanship have gone into this film, which is
now, so to speak, being thrown to the wolves.