Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>The Wolfpack</i> (2015)

MISE EN SEAN – The Wolfpack (2015)

Sean Hanson

June 25th, 2015

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Five minutes into The Wolfpack, I decided I would need to take notes if I planned on providing a coherent review. But then the film — a hurricane of a documentary that sprays themes and ideas in all directions but never quite touches down — doubled back on itself, and my notes grew contradictory. If The Wolfpack is frustrating, as another critic describes it, it’s because the trailer and premise promise us a documentary with a singular focus and a bold point, but the reality of the film is quite different. It’s as hazy and fragmented as the lives of its subjects and, like them, seems incapable of drawing out the underlying meaning.

Paradoxically, this is one of The Wolfpack’s chief strengths.

Enter the Angulos, a family living in a modest Manhattan apartment. The parents are Hare Krishna, and their parenting strategy entails isolating their children from a world they see as corrupt and dangerous. The front door locks from the inside. One of their seven children, a teenager, fondly recalls the year they left the apartment nine times … and laments another year they weren’t allowed outside at all. For some cryptic, unexplored reason, their otherwise autocratic father has passed on his obsession with American cinema to the children. As such, most of their understanding of the world is filtered through home-schooling and the ideology of, say, Quentin Tarantino films and The Dark Knight — not exactly the kind of films anyone would turn to for life lessons.

Six of the brothers watch movies on repeat, transcribe the dialogue, create sophisticated props out of whatever’s lying around, develop even more sophisticated impressions of seemingly inimitable actors — like Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, or Heath Ledger — and act out profanity-laden scenes of violence and exaggerated masculinity as their only form of play. They describe the seventh sibling, their youngest sister, as “special,” and she remains a stranger for most of the movie, glimpsed in the background or peering out of their window. The oldest brother hatches a plan to escape one morning, gets a taste of the outside world, and decides he wants independence from his father, gradually bringing his brothers and his mother along.

And, just as I thought the film was making a point about transgressive art as a weapon against tyranny, the film serves up one of its many quiet surprises: it wasn’t the violent, anarchic movies or Oliver Stone films that inspired this tentative revolution, but simple economic and geographic dissatisfaction. When they first committed to isolationism, the mother tells us, they had big plans of moving to the country with the money they’d saved up. Fifteen years later, they have a library of 5,000 movies, keys to the same apartment, and a father/husband who spends most of his days glued to the television. If they had the income and the house of the Duggars, I wonder, would they feel the same discontent?

This is one of the many questions the movie poses but doesn’t answer. Like Capturing the Friedmans, it’s more of a launchpad than a landing zone, more poem than essay. The film itself is a lean 80 minutes, but the discussion afterwards could last for hours. First-time director Crystal Moselle appears to make a few missteps: as compelling as The Wolfpack thinks the teenage brothers are, their mother is even more so, and she’s relegated mostly to the margins, and for a film so casually critical of the ill effects of patriarchal control in this house-poor Manhattan microcosm, it veers on celebrating the patterns of androcentric cinema, withholding an interview with the father until the halfway mark (how much time do film audiences spend in suspense, waiting for cruel men to speak?), pushing women out of the story, and using the spectre of suggested domestic violence to pique our interest.

Then again, it’s hard to be politically conscious and watch this film without considering its failings, which invariably invites comparisons to more fundamental problems with cinema as an art form. Maybe that was Moselle’s intent. At least one of the brothers admits on-screen that his tendency to see the world through a filter of constant cinematic performance and reference has left him socially crippled, uncertain how he might relate to women. Tellingly, he’s also unable to differentiate between cologne and perfume, a throwaway moment that’s actually reminding us that film only excites two of five senses.

In this, and many other ways, The Wolfpack is uncanny, sneaky, a film so concerned with film’s inherent limitations in conveying real truth that its own limitations only serve to bolster its thesis. Like other critics, I wanted to know more … but how much more could I know? How can we expect to understand people who can barely understand themselves? We expect documentaries to make a concrete point, so any film that works so hard to discourage some universal-truth reading might, at first, seem frustrating. Ultimately, the film is about a tangle of wicked problems — religious, patriarchal, economic, social, societal, cultural, psychological — and it refuses to offer hollow solutions.

For that reason, The Wolfpack is a deeply flawed documentary that also happens to be the best I’ve seen this year. At the very least, it will haunt you. It might urge you to look long and hard into the abyss of your own obsession with film, which is valuable in a culture that equates Tarantino’s violent hypermasculinity with the ultimate cool. Perhaps that’s why the father is so hell-bent on indoctrinating the boys with Reservoir Dogs. Perhaps that’s why their sister spends so much time away from them. Ah, but there I go, using film as a tool to understand the world again …

The Wolfpack opens June 26 at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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