(Note: This post reveals major plot elements of the latest Wolfman film.)
Many film critics, like my buddy Ken Lowery, have drawn our attention to the cinematic lineage of the latest Hollywood version of The Wolfman, a genealogy the film proudly acknowledges by assigning the Talbot family name to its troubled protagonist (wolftagonist?). And it’s certainly tempting to read the film’s basic conflict – between a father and a son, both of whom are werewolves – as a playful acknowledgement of the large shadow cast by cinematic history: the elder Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) refuses to vacate the now-dilapidated Talbot estate in the same way that Lon Chaney’s famous depiction might resist being supplanted by a flashy young upstart (played here by Benicio Del Toro and Rick Baker and company’s fantastic makeup effects). But rather than reinvigorating the lineage, the younger Talbot’s conflict with his past wipes out the family completely, leaving no male successors and a pile of ash where the family’s stately manor once stood. While the filmmakers certainly don’t wish the same fate to befall the Wolfman franchise, I did find the film’s plot rather odd in this regard: what larger thematic issues are at work in the resolution of this 2010 re-telling?
The film is framed by a bodiless voice asking us to think about the thin lines that separate the designations of man and beast. This seems like a topic that a movie about a dude turning into a wolf could pretty directly engage. Pal Dorian Wright summarized the basic beats that get drummed by most werewolf tales a few months back:
There is a strong suggestion with lycanthropy stories that Man is at heart savage. That there’s an unavoidable primitive core in humanity. Were creatures are just letting that hidden side come to the surface. Lycanthropes also bring up the uncomfortable to many reminder that Man is, when you get right down to it, just an animal.
Lycanthropy is typically depicted as the result of being cursed, but the point of most Wolfman tales seems to be that we’re all cursed: the fate of the tormented individual (or in this case, the tormented family) at the center of these narratives dramatically enacts this morality tale in a way that makes it easy for audiences to recognize that all are punished. This is sort of how many of Shakespeare’s tragedies unfold: the protagonists aren’t suffering from distinct “tragic flaws” but are in their messy states because something is rotten in the order of things. But in Shakespeare the problems are usually socially derived and determined, whereas in Wolfman tales the root of the matter is naturalized, or it has religious connotations: humanity exists in a fallen or imperfect state.
What’s going on in the 2010 Wolfman narrative? I’m not exactly sure. Both Talbots get bitten while wandering in search of answers. The elder Talbot gets bitten while on some kind of archaeological (or is it anthropological?) expedition, the sort of trips folks interested in larger questions about human nature tend to find themselves embarking upon. Is the lesson here that we don’t need to go to such lengths to answer these questions, as our savage nature is visible in the mirror? If so, ugh. The younger Talbot is chomped on while attempting to figure out why his brother died. Is the lesson here that we’re all going to die, so we shouldn’t bother with the details? If so, double ugh. The film seems almost relentlessly nihilistic in this light, but such a reading seems in line with Gwen’s (Emily Blunt) inability to help her Wolfman brother-in-law: she must kill him in the end because people can’t change, so let them eat silver lead. I’m getting glib at the close here, mainly because I’m annoyed by the glib, shallow worldview this movie seems to offer audiences. At least the effects were cool.
One last thing: this here Wolfman is set in 1891, presumably so the filmmakers can invite an historical Scotland Yard inspector, Frederick Abberline, to the proceedings. As IMDB informs us, Abberline, played here by Hugo Weaving, has been portrayed previously by Johnny Depp (in 2001’s adaptation of the graphic novel From Hell) and Michael Caine (in the 1988 TV movie Jack The Ripper). The film makes a quick reference to Abberline’s work on the Ripper case, possibly to imply that he has plumbed some dark depths himself in search of answers to questions about the human condition. And his fate here (yup, he gets bitten by a werewolf too!) seems to further encourage a reading of the film’s universe as one that punishes folks who ask about what makes us tick.