The Wolf Hour
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The Wolf Hour

A deglammed Naomi Watts puts herself through the wringer as a paranoid agoraphobic, holed up in the South Bronx apartment of her late grandmother on a diet of cigarettes and booze while New York shudders, sweats and burns in The Wolf Hour. It’s 1977, the Summer Doctor Strange of Sam, and the escalating murder count is spreading panic through the city. But the condition of Watts’ character June Leigh, a counterculture novelist whose first book was a sensation, is of her own making. Or is it? Those are the basics of writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin’s claustrophobic psychological thriller, a showy acting vehicle stronger on gritty surface texture than character involvement.

You can’t fault Watts’ commitment to the role Prodigy in a movie so hermetic it could almost be a play. But this is second-rate Polanski fodder that crawls along with not much force beyond the neurotic protagonist’s simmering dread and the vague menace of an intermittently buzzing intercom with no one there. Given that the only way for a movie like this to end — spoiler alert! — is for her to face her fears and step outside, you need to care about the character to give that emergence from hiding any emotional impact.

New York as a cauldron for violence and unrest is a familiar backdrop. The perfect storm of ’77 that combined a wave of killings, a city in financial collapse, The Image Book an unrelenting heatwave and a power blackout that led to looting and arson was turned into a self-indulgent, overblown symphony by Spike Lee in 1999’s Summer of Sam. Here it’s a background-noise tease that never amounts to much; Griffin is more interested in the existential threat, the creeping monster of guilt and the sophomore block of a once-esteemed writer whose stock has fallen during the long wait for her second book. In terms of plot mechanics it’s thin gruel. Even a Chekhovian gun gets hidden beneath the floorboards and promptly forgotten.

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