‘Werewolf’ Is An Intoxicating Debut Feature By Ashley McKenzie [TIFF Review]

Ashley McKenzie’s “Werewolf” is a startling, out-of-nowhere film, and an intoxicating first feature from a rising filmmaker. Who are the actors in this story of addiction and despair? Where did they come from? What happened to these characters before the events of the film? And what will happen after? These questions will haunt audience members, especially those who catch the film during its screenings at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Director McKenzie is a festival veteran — a TIFF Talent Lab alum who has seen three shorts screen at past TIFFs— but the debut feature from the Nova Scotia native earns her placement on the shortlist for the 2016 installment’s breakout stars.

In addition to directing, McKenzie wrote, co-produced, and co-edited “Werewolf,” a film that has the distinction of qualifying as one of the most grim dramas about addiction ever made. Considering the list, that’s saying something. Stylistically and thematically it calls to mind the 2014 heroin drama “Heaven Knows What,” and while it’s not quite as emotionally resonant as that acclaimed film, and lacks the one unforgettable moment that would cement its status as a new classic, it’s still a hugely successful effort. Its uniqueness and freshness comes from its two central characters, and the heartbreaking simplicity of its story and visuals.

werewolf_tiff-2016-werewolf_01These characters are Bhreagh MacNeil’s Nessa and Andrew Gillis’ Blaise, a couple living in a small Nova Scotia town. Their lives revolve (in virtually every way) around their methadone. They wander, they wait in line for their dose, they drag a beat-up lawnmower around and ask residents if their grass needs cutting. From the start, McKenzie thrusts us directly into the couple’s everyday life, a bold move that does not allow the audience to delve into what is surely an emotional backstory. Yet by plunging us into their current quest for spare dollars and adequate housing, the filmmaker provides a better sense of what such an existence really entails. Their minds and bodies are abused; the camera lingers on sores, dirty fingernails, jumpy legs and facial tics. It’s an intensely physical focus, and it heightens our sense that there is an inherent tension in every moment the couple spends together.

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Still, here’s an undeniable sweetness to Nessa and Blaise in many of these scenes, as expected in a relationship gripped by melancholia and defined by co-dependency. We discover very little about the couple. Information about how they met, their childhoods, and the jobs they’ve held is withheld. It’s a surprise to learn that Blaise has a daughter; after this admission, she is never referenced again. Nessa, it’s revealed, is just 19 years old. Blaise’s age is unsaid, but it’s clear that every one of his years has been difficult. “How’s your mood been on a scale of 1 to 10?” he’s asked early on. “4,” he gloomily replies, assuring the questioner that his methadone will help.

Finances are an ever-present concern. In one sharply observed scene, we watch as the couple applies for low-income housing. Every individual in a position of power — the woman who tells them there’s a waiting list for single-people housing, the doctors, many of the homeowners who’d rather not have these strangers mow their lawns — is faceless, and often emotionless. Blaise erupts in front of many of them (“We don’t have anywhere to go right now”), but even so, the lesson is clear: even with good intentions, the system doesn’t work for everyone.

werewolf_tiff-2016There’s also the $150 (and growing) methadone tab lurking in the background. And there are lawn mower repair costs. (The repairman quotes the price at $60, sensibly asking, “Do I look like I fix them for nothing?”) Paranoia does not help, but it’s clear why Blaise and Nessa feel everyone is out to get them. Simple acts like starting the mower take on an air of overwhelming desperation, while McKenzie frames a scene of Blaise dragging around an old lawnmower in the pouring rain so it seems to be an insurmountable task. The camera stays trained on his struggling face, and the sequence comes shortly after one in which he seems to be shirking his responsibility (Watching Nessa struggle in the heat, a lounging Blaise asks if she’d like to take a break.) Moments like these add needed complexity to characters that could have felt one-note.

Things change dramatically once Nessa gets a job at an ice cream stand. Watching her learn the proper approach to make a custard cone (“Remember to go slow”), there’s a sense that hope is not lost. She works, she talks about moving on, she saves some money, she has small victories. Blaise? Not so much. The more Nessa works, the more he retreats. Soon, she discovers he stole her methadone, and has finally had enough. “It’s not your responsibility to keep him alive,” Nessa is told, and while that’s an undeniable fact, she also seems remarkably alone without him.

McKenzie’s film is probably one of the scariest to ever include “Werewolf” in the title, and for none of the reasons a viewer might expect. While not part of the horror genre, it captures many of the emotions that make those films great — approaching monsters, feelings of isolation and abandonment, the tension that exists between the “believers” and everyone else. It’s not an odd title then, really. In fact, it’s a profoundly clever one. (Don’t want to change into the beast? Better get your methadone, and pay that tab.) Interestingly, the horror trope “Werewolf” intentionally avoids is catharsis, and that makes for a very difficult viewing experience. Still, we end with a sliver of hope. In the film’s final scene, Nessa seems to make an important decision, one which might set her on the path to survival. Might being the important word. “Werewolf” is all about possibilities, and most of them are miserable and frightening. Grim and unrelenting, this is a strong debut feature and a truly memorable TIFF16 entry. [B+]

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