Back in the 1960s, June Leigh wrote one blockbuster of a book, The Patriarch, and it changed her life. A thick indictment of Vietnam profiteering in the form of a single man, June’s book seemed perfect for the times, awash in progressive politics that would get people thinking about and maybe working for a better future, maybe get them marching in the streets. But what the critics wanted to focus on, really, was the resemblance of June’s protagonist to her father. The fallout from that question is what lands her in a very different position, a very different world than she’d inhabited and imagined: a crumby, overstuffed apartment in the burning 1977 Bronx.
The apartment was once a haven when it belonged to her grandmother, but now June (an agonizingly frayed Naomi Watts) lives there like a refugee, a “crib job,” watching the world come apart from her window, deeply invested in some dark magical thinking that keeps her from putting one foot over the threshold. And now, even if the world seems to have moved on from the literary wunderkind, someone’s apparently still interested enough to buzz her intercom night and day, trying, she thinks, to drive her insane. At this precise moment, New York is insane, awash in violence and the arsons that would eventually reshape The Bronx. And it’s the Summer of Sam, too, the mass murderer a writer himself, wishing everyone a hearty hello from the gutters of New York as he kills women who look just like June. Is she paranoid? Is she even relevant enough to be paranoid?
The Wolf Hour is a finely crafted, nervy study of a woman’s struggle to emerge from a complex self-exile. There’s something of Rear Window in the claustrophobic closure of the set, but here Raymond Burr is the world, and there’s little pleasure or even distracting heartbreak to be observed in the windows across the way—just more reminders of the internal as much as external hell to which June has confined herself. And reminders, too, of the struggles and desperation of people who don’t look like her, though it takes June awhile, and a few encounters with her delivery boy, Freddie, to understand this. While there’s much more to June’s background, relationships, and high flying career than we’re allowed to know up front, director Alistair Banks Griffin makes the important choice not to fill us in via flashback, not to let us out of the apartment even in memory, instead loading June’s entire history onto the slim, present body of Watts (ably assisted by the fine score), sometimes cringing, sometimes proud, even ecstatic as fragments of culture provoke and prod her. Given the contrast of June’s personal history with the neighborhood, I’m not sure the film explores or interrogates her privileged, aristocratic origins as much as it might. Other white characters stoke her seemingly inherent fears by advising her to watch herself or, better yet, get away from these “animals,” the sharp-voiced, dark-skinned, often violent men in the street. And perhaps a more direct examination of this particular fear wouldn’t have felt true to the time, but we can certainly see June’s only tentative steps toward re-seeing non-whites as something of a persistent failure of her vague progressive ideals, no matter what progress she manages to make personally.
Is there any true escape from the apartment, then, from the crumbling fortress of self its become? Tune in to The Wolf Hour and see for yourself. It is an excellent watch.
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