Intimate yet aestheticized, Canadian director Ashley McKenzie’s debut feature Werewolf presents a tale of addiction and love through images that both limit our vision and force us to see things anew. Its story may be thin, its characters not particularly original, but McKenzie’s use of cinematic language is savvy and novel, finding complexity where others might find only emptiness.
When we first meet Nessa (mesmerizing newcomer Bhreagh MacNeil) and Blaise (Andrew Gillis), two young methadone addicts living on Cape Breton Island, they’re spending their time pushing a rickety lawnmower door to door, offering to cut people’s grass for $15 a pop. Nobody’s fooling anybody, however, about what’s going on: Most of their prospective customers want nothing to do with them. Nessa and Blaise regularly go to the methadone clinic for their dose, and McKenzie effectively conveys the impersonal, regimented nature of this ritual by fragmenting their close-ups through the dispensary window.
Much of Werewolf follows the couple’s separation and increasing desperation after their lawnmower breaks down and Nessa takes a job at an ice cream shop. But even that description suggests more drama than what appears onscreen for most of the film. McKenzie isn’t interested so much in conventional interactions as she is in following patterns and rhythms and telling details. The camera is often unnaturally tight on the subjects, the frame often unbalanced: This has the odd effect of heightening both our intimacy and our uncertainty. We’re right there with Nessa and Blaise, and yet unsure of what’s happening to them, which is probably not dissimilar to how they’re feeling.
By tackling her material through visual patterns and metaphors, McKenzie finds interesting ways to express ideas that in more conventional hands might feel like clichés. The lovers at the heart of Werewolf are quite different people: Blaise is anxious and angry, while Nessa is reserved, careful. We see him in angular, off-kilter frames: a nervously shaking leg; a bony foot, an extreme close-up of an argument. She, on the other hand, is often presented via soft, circular motifs: a rounded shoulder, an angle on an ear, the tidy curve of her hair as it rests in a hairnet.
McKenzie’s refined approach doesn’t just define character, it also helps express the characters’ complicated longings. At the ice cream shop, we see close-ups of Nessa learning to use the soft-serve machine (which itself has a big circular tank at its center): She learns to make perfectly curving swirls on the cones; she operates the big, round Oreo-grinder. After all the film’s earlier off-center angles, McKenzie puts these objects in the middle of the frame, as if to suggest an almost Zen sense of routine and balance creeping into Nessa’s life, taking her further and further from Blaise’s sharp, twitchy reality. There isn’t a lot of overt emotion in Werewolf, but connect with this talented new director’s unorthodox style, and you may find yourself deeply moved.
Directed by Ashley McKenzie
Opens March 2, Anthology Archives