Set in the summer of 1977 New York, reclusive author June Leigh (Naomi Watts) lives in self-isolation inside her blistering South Bronx apartment. For the film’s runtime, we’re trapped inside with her. June spends her day’s chain-smoking by the old, dusty books and stale, overstuffed trash bags that clutter her apartment. On the streets below, the suffocating heatwave and growing social imbalance drive up crime and violence, resulting in burning buildings and social unrest. Amidst the chaos is Son of Sam, a serial killer targeting women with long, dark brown hair just like June’s. To make matters worse, she doesn’t even feel safe in her own apartment, because an unseen tormentor keeps pressing her door buzzer with alarming frequency. June is starting to unravel…
After her autobiographical novel destroyed her family relationships, June felt that she was better off alone. As the advance for her second novel draws thin, she asks her old friend Margot (Jennifer Ehle) if she can borrow some money. To June’s dismay, this prompts Margot to visit and she is surprised by how June lives. She didn’t realize things had gotten bad again. “This thing is all in your head,” she tells June, but it’s hard to know exactly what “this thing” is. Eventually, June drives Margot away and she is forced to face old trauma to deliver her long-promised second novel. She also finds emotional comfort in her new delivery man Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and male prostitute Billy (Emory Cohen).
The Wolf Hour is full of browns and yellows, like a coffee-stained book, but the dingy cinematography fits perfectly. With well-shot scenes, including an amusing one of Watts dancing (cut far too short for my liking) and a scene of June putting her face into a bowl of cold water with a fan directly pointing at her, the film manages to create the sweltering, claustrophobic atmosphere that took over in the late ’70s.
As The Wolf Hour progresses, it’s hard to know exactly where it’s going. There is effective tension and unease throughout, but a faster pace would’ve helped to crush some stagnant moments, as nothing happens for a long time and it begins to drag. In fact, it’s not until late into the third act when the famous citywide blackout kicks in. In some ways, The Wolf Hour feels like a novel itself. It explores a tormented writer who is still suffering from decades-old wounds. The details of her life – both past and present – feel intimate, though parts remain unclear. Watts’ strong performance is key as the film works best as a character study. June is alert, paranoid and riddled with anxiety, but the reasons for her isolation come out in small doses that appear secondary to the plot, allowing it to remain sparse.
While Watts doesn’t disappoint, The Wolf Hour isn’t for everyone as its budding tension promises a climax that never comes, despite its glimpse into a chaotic ‘77 summer. For such an intriguing event to depict, director Alistair Banks Griffin chooses to explore the Summer of Sam without exploring it – it is merely a backdrop for our troubled protagonist. If anything, it serves as a catalyst for her freedom. It’s a classic conflict to bring an outside predator to torment a reclusive agoraphobe. Perhaps, as Billy said, the unknown caller was the universe’s way of inviting June back into the world.
The Wolf Hour is now available to watch on digital HD services.