Stories of addicts of all kinds trying to get clean and sober in the face of the self-destructive need to score their next fix have been done many times before, but few such films have the bracing, unflinching visual eye that Nova Scotia filmmaker Ashley McKenzie brings to Werewolf, one of the best and most notable Canadian films of this decade. It’s a harsh story told in as raw and uncomfortably close a fashion as possible, and while the overall plot of Werewolf might seem similar to other tales of lovers and the drugs that come between them, it’s McKenzie’s approach this will leave viewers, especially those who have lived close to addiction, captivated and speechless. There are many reasons why this was one of the standouts from TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten line-up, and they’re all easy to see and too monumental not to notice.
Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Vanessa (Bhreagh MacNiel) are trying to make ends meet and stay off heroin. They line up daily for their methadone, and then try to set out making a few bucks here and there by going door to door in the hot Cape Breton summertime and asking homeowners if they need their lawns mowed. They’re essentially homeless, and getting any sort of housing assistance is going to take a lot of time and effort. Blaise has suicidal tendencies and always looks to start fights with anyone he thinks might be unfairly judging him for being impoverished. Nessa has big dreams of the two of them going out west for a better life, and she’s willing to make a go of things by taking a job at an ice cream shop. Nessa can envision the future. Blaise can only envision the next several hours of his life. They love each other greatly, but she’s motivated by dreams and goals, and he’s motivated only by fear that he won’t survive.
There are no shots of Blaise and Nessa shooting up throughout Werewolf; no furious scratching of arms while tweaking out, no eyes rolling back in the head to denote rapture, no run-ins with ne’er-do-well dealers, no panhandling, no furiously captured sequences where someone overdoses, and really no compromising of either Blaise or Nessa’s pre-existing senses of morality in an effort to score. Most importantly, they aren’t apathetic stereotypes who only care about each other and their drugs. Outside of being a tale of addicts in a committed relationship, McKenzie’s Werewolf eschews nearly every cliché in the getting sober playbook. It’s the simplest kind of human drama – two lost souls stuck in an awful situation that they created, but now can’t get out of – but it’s not what’s being said in Werewolf that’s so fascinating and fresh, but how it’s being said.
These are people trying to survive and move on, but the world refuses to help in any significant way. Blaise and Nessa respond to this external apathy in different ways, and Werewolf isn’t so much a film about people strengthening a relationship, but one where they slowly, perhaps inevitable start to come apart, both for better and for worse. The slow decent of their relationship is more a side effect of circumstance and less than the two falling out of love with each other. A breaking point is closing in because a breaking point is being forced upon them.
McKenzie, who also writes and edits, might allow the audience to question Nessa and Blaise’s motivations and actions, but she makes it abundantly clear that the viewer has no right to pass moral judgement on them. A lot of choices Blaise and Nessa have to make are tied to addictions they want to leave in the past, but every hardship faced by them are things that people who don’t have addictions still struggle with every day: finding steady employment, getting access to healthcare, providing emotional and financial support for a loved one. These are universal problems that everyday people wrestle with all the time, and by taking the drug movie clichés out of the equation entirely, McKenzie has stripped her story down to the painful essence that most filmmakers tend to ignore in favour of the more salacious aspects of addiction. It could just as easily be an indictment of capitalism as it could be a look into the ravages of drug abuse.
McKenzie’s use of natural light and the cinematography of Scott Moore makes every whitewashed wall, blade of grass, rusty metal, and drop of rain look like something from a harsh hangover, which sounds like an insult, but I mean as a sincere compliment here. Every colour, even though much of Nessa and Blaise’s lives is monochromatic, has a sharpness to it; almost like ever inch of the world around these characters is screaming at them. McKenzie captures the faces of her actors in close quarters, sometimes literally, with only a quarter of an actor’s face in the frame during a tight close up. This doesn’t only make McKenzie’s vision one that’s sparse and stripped down, but also aesthetically a film that serves as a reflection on the frustration her characters are constantly experiencing. We can see that the world is wide and large, but we also see how these people are unable to move within it.
The performances from MacNeil and Gillis, both of whom were rightfully nominated for Canadian Screen Awards earlier this year, are equally electrifying, with the former representing a cautious hopefulness and the other a depressive, unspoken plea for help. McKenzie’s material gives both actors plenty of room to experiment with the characters, and neither performance hits a false note. These are fully realized characters borne from material that’s open to interpretation by anyone who attempts it. Maybe other actors could have played these parts and stayed true to McKenzie’s vision, but what MacNeil and Gillis bring to Werewolf are performances so singular and unique that the delicate storytelling balance would have been greatly altered with anyone else. The further ground an already grounded film like bolts holding down an anchor.
McKenzie, who also won the Stella Artois Jay Scott Prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association back in January, has been one of Canada’s best short filmmakers for several years now. With Werewolf she becomes one of the country’s best feature filmmakers, and Gillis and MacNeil have become two actors to keep a close eye on. I can’t wait to see where they all go next. Werewolf is good enough to make me want to follow them anywhere.
Werewolf opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, June 2, 2017.
Check out the trailer for Werewolf: