Few actors can capture extreme distress and human frailty better than Naomi Watts, which is why Alistair Banks Griffin’s claustrophobic film The Wolf Hour held so much promise. Watts is literally in every scene of this single-room thriller, as a woman withering from paranoia in a sweltering New York summer of ill repute. It’s largely because of her that the film holds together as well as it does, but a severe lack of urgency and an uncertain conclusion lead to more frustration than satisfaction.
Griffin, in his first feature in nearly a decade, has set The Wolf Hour during an especially vivid moment of time in New York City history. The summer of 1977, when the city was baking under the summer heat and tension was at an all-time high due to the infamous “44. Caliber Killer” aka the Son of Sam. Similar to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the temperature is like a stove constantly set on high. Something is always about to boil over, and with a citywide blackout looming it most certainly will.
Into this sweatbox is author June Leigh (Watts), holed up in her dead grandmother’s shitty, disheveled apartment in a part of town charitably described as a war zone. It’s clear she hasn’t left the place in months, maybe longer; it looks like something out of an episode of Hoarders, and June is constantly on edge. Along with the heat, there’s an oppressive atmosphere that Griffin and Watts portray beautifully. The apartment’s buzzer keeps going off at odd times, random acts of brutality take place literally at June’s doorstep, the walls seem like they’re closing in, and it feels like maybe something more than just a stalker is the major cause of her trouble.
Whether it’s something tangibly dangerous or a break from reality that has affected June is kept tantalizingly at bay for most of the movie’s 90-minute runtime. Occasionally, the oppressive mood is broken up by a few supporting characters: Watts’ Luce co-star and 2019 breakout actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a grocery delivery boy with physical and emotional scars; Jennifer Ehle is excellent as June’s concerned sister; and Emory Cohen as a strangely kind-hearted gigolo. But it’s Watts who keeps this movie interesting enough to maintain our investment, wallowing in June’s sadness, fear, and anxiety, while flashing signs of the happy, successful woman she used to be.
So much weight is placed on Watts’ shoulders because Griffin, who also wrote the script, fails to give The Wolf Hour much narrative guidance. This is one of those films where people will complain that “nothing happens”, because it certainly seems that way for long stretches. Of course, this isn’t actually true, but Griffin spends nearly the entire movie setting up some big revelation or confrontation that simply never materializes, despite the blackout providing a perfect backdrop for Watts’ character to emerge from her personal darkness.