By Stephen Whitty
The Bronx is burning, and June Leigh isn’t doing so well herself.
She was a famous novelist, once. But then came a death in the family. A case of writer’s block. Mounting debts.
Now, in 1977, she sits locked away in her dead grandmother’s apartment, afraid to look outside, terrified of looking within.
June is sometimes funny, sometimes edgy, often infuriating — and onscreen in every scene of The Wolf Hour. It’s a role that demands a fiercely committed actress, and luckily director Alistair Banks Griffin has her in Naomi Watts.
Ever since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in 2001, Watts has been an uncompromising, if often underestimated, performer, opening people up like a surgeon. She does it again here, making June both sympathetic and scary.
The movie itself sometimes goes off track, dragging in some improbable backstory and an unnecessary character. But Watts’ jangled June is perfect.
After years of living alone, her eccentricities have become full-on phobias. She gets all her food delivered from the downstairs deli. She lowers her garbage out the window on a rope. She sits and sweats and worries.
She has a lot to worry about, too. After all, someone is keeping her awake at night, leaning on the downstairs buzzer. Someone keeps calling her on the intercom, whispering.
Just because you can’t see the wolves doesn’t mean they aren’t howling at the door.
The limits of the crowded apartment add to her stress, and our unease. Also to the staginess — at times, this feels like a one-woman one-act play, padded out to feature length.
But Griffin tries to keep things cinematic. The soundtrack crackles with shrieking sirens and drunken streetfights. The characters sport damp hair and flushed faces, their wrinkled clothes as messy as their lives. You can almost see the humidity.
And eventually the film becomes not just a portrait of one artist falling apart, but of a city in distress.
Set during a time of financial crises, blackouts and the reign of the murderous “Son of Sam,” the movie re-creates a New York City about to come apart at the seams. Finally, in the film’s final moments, it does, and the chaos that June has tried to keep outside comes looking, at last, for her.
And maybe for everyone who ever thought just shutting the door could keep the worst of the world at bay.
The Wolf Hour is available On Demand and on DVD. Check your cable system for availability.