Would that Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman were spectacularly awful, then it would have been at least a fun time at the movies. Instead, it’s awkward and dumbfounding, for there’s no joy to the way Johnston’s dreary hack job clunkily dishes out exposition, gracelessly cobbles together its scenes, cheapily attempts to scare us, and lazily rests on the laurels of crude makeup and visual effect work that would have you believe there haven’t been any advances in these crafts since Lon Cheney Jr. donned latex for the part of the wolfman he famously played in George Waggner’s 1941 film of the same name. Rather than offer a unique twist on this familiar story of a man succumbing to the vicious animal urge to kill whenever the moon is full, the film glibly stays within the familiar, occurring mostly as an uninspired cacophony of apathetic storytelling and cheap mutilations.
Arriving at his childhood manse in the wake of his brother’s death by the ravenous claws and teeth of a mysterious wolf creature, Benicio del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot is himself attacked by the monster and sees his wounds tended to by his brother’s widow, Gwen (Emily Blunt), who ostensibly bears a resemblance to his mother, a vaguely ethnic cipher who took her own life when he was a child. A flashback Lawrence has to the night he saw his father (Anthony Hopkins) holding his mother’s lifeless body in his hands, a razorblade by her side, constitutes a half-hearted attempt on Johnston’s part to lock the child and his parents in an Oedipal passion play that never thrillingly materializes. Rather than suggest the emotional strain and psychological compulsion of his characters through framing and cutting, Johnston merely chop-sockily butchers together his images, ghosting his characters with overexposure, conveying nothing but a cheap, schlocky, and inconsistent reliance on J-horror-style tricks of hand.
What a piffle of a story this is, all stilted atmosphere (occasionally laughably canted angle notwithstanding), dubious suspense (Blunt’s face is hidden from the camera early on with such curious calculation you’d think she were going to be revealed as the wolfman herself), spiritless staging, and pitiful acting (Hopkins conveys his character’s deadness with humiliated disinterest). The first attack by the wolfman in a field lined with gypsies and their carts, rather than build slowly and ominously to the crescendo of Lawrence’s initiation into wolfdom, simply happens—noisily and gracelessly, with no sense that the disorientation created by the camera and cutting is that of any of the characters. Later, Lawrence stands by a lake one moment, the next Gwen is behind him, ready for her lesson on how to throw stones across the face of the water, and Johnston’s disregard or mere disinterest in creating a more fluid, coherent sense of movement between scenes becomes infuriating. You watch these scenes, like the unspeakably awful wolf-on-wolf climax of the film, baffled because they couldn’t have been made with any less care or sophistication. Only Hugo Weaving, as the Scotland Yard inspector hunting down the wolfman, seems to have crafted something here with anything resembling a sense of enjoyment.
Even with Johnston at the helm, there was hope for Wolfman given the casting of both Blunt and the near-preternaturally gifted del Toro, whose gifts have dignified many a dismal production. But Johnston, rather than allow this great actor, as Guy Ritchie did for Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes, to simply flex his talents and toy with and subvert the psychosexual baggage of his character, instead cramps his style. Why, for example, is Lawrence revealed to be a great stage actor early on if his fondness for performance is going to go otherwise unmentioned and left bafflingly unconnected to his transformation into the wolfman? Del Toro isn’t even given a moment of quiet self-reflection, whether it’s as the wolfman straddling a gargoyle atop a London building or as his bloodied self beneath an underpass near the London Bridge, to simply reflect on the horrors he’s committed. All he’s asked to do is lazily howl at the moon and perform a few decapitations, and everyone, including the audience, is left feeling embarrassed.