There may not be a single master shot in Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf, and if there is, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. The film is mostly composed of close-ups that threaten to turn the actors into abstract collections of body parts, particularly of arms and legs and portions of faces. When Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a drug addict struggling with methadone treatment, scolds a medical professional for being blind to his pain, the shot is framed so that the top half of Blaise’s face is off screen. Such a pointedly asymmetrical composition, of which there are many in Werewolf, could be taken as a sick joke: Blaise accuses the medical community of reducing him to a number and so McKenzie actualizes his suspicions by rendering him faceless.
If Werewolf were simply concerned with the corporeal suffering of drug addicts, it would be a bold yet nearly unbearable art-film stunt. McKenzie’s aesthetic achieves a strange irony, however, as her abstractions serve to heighten our emotional connection to Blaise and his young girlfriend, Vanessa (Bhreagh MacNeil). When Blaise’s face is clipped off by the film’s frame, we feel his rage at his dehumanization. Other close-ups serve similarly subtle purposes. When Blaise and Vanessa lounge outside of an abandoned trailer in the hot Canadian countryside, clad only in their underwear, McKenzie lingers on Vanessa’s legs nestled against Blaise’s body, as they hold hands while she sits in his lap. Once again, we can’t see anyone’s face, yet the intimate sense of touch in this moment is tender and erotic. The sequence feels private though, as we aren’t permitted to look into anyone’s eyes.
It achieves a strange irony, as its formal abstractions serve to heighten our emotional connection to the characters.
Werewolf brings us close to Blaise and Vanessa while concurrently holding us at a distance. And such a point of view is perceptive of addicts, who can feel perpetually exposed—stripped raw—and closed-off at the same time. The film is busy with the quotidian doings of a homeless addict’s wandering existence. Blaise and Vanessa work the country roads with a barely functioning lawnmower, trying to get by on cutting lawns. And there’s something almost theatrically existential about Blaise and Vanessa’s plight; hauling around a junk mower in intolerable heat, they suggest characters in an update of Waiting for Godot as rewritten by Hubert Selby Jr. (McKenzie and Gillis spin dark, bone-dry comedy out of Blaise’s quest to fashion himself as some sort of negotiator, especially when he quarrels with a repairman over the mower.)
Yet Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise, a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting.
McKenzie keeps the camera close on Vanessa, scrutinizing her acne, the hair that’s almost unifying her eyebrows, and a variety of other indignities that litter the lives of those who can’t afford to take anything for granted. At times, Vanessa’s face is engulfed in the shrill white light of the restaurant or clinic, suggesting someone who’s on the verge of either transcendence or damnation. By this point in the film, McKenzie’s formal provocations have become a unified and original style. We’re always so close to these characters because they can’t afford a perspective with a master shot.