Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"What emerges is thoughtful and deeply humane, whilst retaining that sense of otherness essential to folkloric tales."

The werewolf is one of the longest-established monsters in human history, dating back more than 4,000 years and making its first recorded appearance in The Epic Of Gilgamesh, but it’s only over the last two centuries that storytellers have really begun to reflect on the internal experience of a man undergoing such a transformation, rather than on the terror created externally by the wolf. Such treatments are still fairly rare, especially when one strays beyond the bounds of lightweight mainstream movies or pulp novellas. Larry Fessenden’s latest work, which screened as part of the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival, shows us the impact of wolf-like predation on the denizens of a small town, but is essentially a human story.

That town is Talbot Falls, to which fortysomething fine art painter Charley (Alex Hurt) is returning after a lengthy leave of absence. He has been rethinking the way he lives his life, something which may or may not be related to the bloody deaths of tourists in the woods surrounding the town, or to the strange bruises which he finds on his body when he wakes up. Parts of the woods are being cut down to make way for a new estate. It’s a project which Charley’s father worked on before his death, and Charley has a bone to pick with the deceased man’s business partner, Hammond (Marshall Bell), after finding information which points to dodgy dealings.

Small towns being what they are, all of this is complicated. Charley used to live with Hammond’s daughter, Sharon (Addison Tiimlin), and there is still a degree of romantic tension between them despite a mysterious and messy break-up and her having found a new relationship. Charley takes the papers to local lawyer Kate (a sultry Barbara Crampton), one of a series of actions in which he seems to consign his own future to fate, but there are things he can’t do, and Sharon might be the reason for that. Meanwhile, local police officers Luis (Joseph Castillo-Midyett) and Alice (Ella Rae Peck) investigate further brutal killings and try to protect local construction worker Miguel (Rigo Garay) from angry locals after Hammond accuses him of being behind the crimes.

Violence is everywhere in this town, simmering just beneath the surface, preoccupying the minds of even those least likely to commit it; but there is also a sweetness. It’s most palpable in the interactions of the two cops, whose affectionate banter provides a welcome thread of humour and points up the absurdities surrounding them. Like some of Fessenden’s earlier work, the film is deceptively unstructured, unspooling like a yarn shared with strangers at a country inn, like a recollection of events which actually took place. There is talk of Umwelt, which highlights the experiential duality of the werewolf but also calls attention to the separateness of all the townspeople, the impossibility of them ever fully understanding one another in spite of the close interweaving of their lives.

Woven into all this, often so smoothly that you will need to be actively paying attention to spot them, are a number of werewolf myths. They invite us to try to figure out the rules of what’s happening even as Fessenden suggests that these are unimportant – that what really matters is something much simpler. Though a couple of graphic scenes present us with the classic imagery of the werewolf movie, there are also suggestions that what’s happening might hinge on delusion. The possibility that there could be a serial killer at work is treated with an expression of horror which the werewolf does not merit, suggesting that the latter, for all its unlikely nature, is seen as more natural – nature itself acting according to its own rules.

Despite the violent actions of the beast, this is a gently paced film which builds up emotional capital so subtly that you won’t realise it until characters you have come to care about start to die, or until its quietly devastating end. We see only as much of the visceral horror as we absolutely need to. Fessenden is more concerned with its psychological and sociological impacts. What emerges is thoughtful and deeply humane, whilst retaining that sense of otherness essential to folkloric tales. It’s a film which will haunt you.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2023
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A fine arts painter becomes convinced that he is a werewolf, wreaking havoc on a small American town under the full moon.

Director: Larry Fessenden

Writer: Larry Fessenden

Starring: Addison Timlin, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros, Barbara Crampton, Marshall Bell, Joe Swanberg, Ella Rae Peck

Year: 2023

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: US

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