Virginia Woolf said that a writer needed two essential things: guineas and locks –that is, money and privacy. June Leigh (Naomi Watts), the protagonist of The Wolf Hour, has enough of these, and like Garbo, she wants to be alone. However, her door buzzer keeps ringing and no one answers on the other end. It’s almost a Greek chorus of defiance, a spiritual raspberry to June’s pretensions, for she is the author of The Patriarch, a searing novel that established her career as a writer and has caused a split with her family so bad that they’ve disowned her.
She’s hiding out, crippled, in a dumpy apartment in the Bronx in 1977 . . . the age of Son of Sam, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, and a filthy, decaying neighborhood in a New York loaded with crime and societal breakdown. Sound familiar?
It’s not a happy movie, and June is a pretty lousy protagonist. She snipes at people, from her sister Margot (Julia Ehle) to Freddy (Kevin Harrison Jr.), a delivery boy for her lifeline of groceries and cigarettes. June needs Freddy and her Hispanic grocer, but they are a life preserver she keeps throwing back. She is unkempt, dirty, her sweatiness is apparent, and she smokes hundreds of cigarettes. If June depends on anyone, she’s guaranteed to insult them.
Why would a beauty like Naomi Watts take such an ugly role, and indeed uglify herself?
Because pretty blonde actresses like Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidder, Amy Adams, and others are told by too many trendies and “serious” critics that when they appear beautiful, sexy, and wholesome in a film, it’s only fluff, and they need to get ugly and nasty to show their real chops as an actress in a “serious” script. This usually means they look like a dog to be in a dog.
The Wolf Hour, despite uglifying Naomi Watts, caught my interest in its depiction of the symbolic nature of American and Western culture. If I called other movies Trump films, this is definitely a COVID film. More on that later.
June is holed up in her grandmother’s apartment. It could almost be a stage play, and I admire the set decorator. The place looks filthy and neglected, with tons of useless ephemera built up by her grandmother and left around. The apartment is quite spacious by New York standards, but it just means it’s a dump for more junk. You can almost smell the old bundles of newspapers, worn-out interiors, the stench from the toilet, and the awful heat the pitiful fan hopelessly tries to keep at bay.
It should remind you of all the crap you have to clean out of a dead relative’s apartment, and June needs this womb room as a safety blanket to hide in. Limping, she can’t take out the garbage. Instead, she tries to lower a plastic bag out the window using a rope, but it breaks loose and crashes onto the sidewalk. Not that anyone below notices or cares, but the rope leaves a burn cut on her hand she has to re-bandage. June is into pain and suffering, because she is partly here for atonement.
Her prime link to reality is Freddy. She’s the customer and always right, but Freddy senses he has some power over her. Their relationship is cautious, like that of a predator meeting a herbivore at the waterhole when both drink with their eyes on each other. The apartment is a sort of waterhole. Freddy keeps using the sink to cool off from the torrid heat. June notices scars on his body and asks about them. Freddy was burned as a child when his mother saved him from a tenement fire likely caused by the owner. He’s wary of her concern, fleeting as it is, and one wonders if he has to bathe to seek atonement from ghosts caused by losing his mother.
He’s a hustler, he admits, but not a thief. This comes when June accuses him of stealing her cigarettes. Through the window she sees him walk off, taunted by gangbangers on the corner. She asks him about this. Freddy reveals he’s a rebel: wanting order and stability as opposed to the current urban stagnation. He almost sounds like an Uncle Tom, telling June the world gives back what you give it. When she asks what the world of the Bronx is giving him, he gives June a warning: “Those dudes out there ever find out you’re a crip . . . they’ll come for you.”
This film of ugliness recalls, of all things, classical French tragedy, such as Corneille. June is a high-born personage brought low, and as in French tragedy, messengers and characters appear to describe the action off-stage while the heroine reacts to it.
The Wolf Hour has three messengers. The first is Margot (Julie Ehle), June’s sister, and her telephone call is unwelcome, except as a way for June to cadge for more money. Margot will visit. June is horrified. No, she mustn’t, just mail the cash. Margot insists. She’s on her way. “It’ll be great,” Margot says ominously.
When she arrives, Margot is stunned. Wasn’t June’s stay in the apartment supposed to be temporary?
June snaps at Margot’s concern. Margot tells June the apartment may have been a sanctuary, but now it’s a time bomb. “You have to get back up and fight,” she exhorts a scoffing June. Margot offers advice: a therapy voice, but June can argue and twist therapy back on the speaker. She’s used to being the suffering artist and no doubt wronged sister. She throws something Margot once said back at her. “My proximity to you even negated my chance of being a success.” Once June supported Margot, but now the tables are turned, and June, even in defeat, enjoys twisting the knife as she sinks lower and lower.
Margot, in her clean clothes and suburban propriety, is a target for June.
When cleaning up the mess in the apartment, Margot finds pages June has written, and she stops her criticism to admire them. June, despite her writer’s block, is doing some pretty vivid work. June contemptuously sets fire to the pages. “Purge me of my stuff,” June sneers, “purge away.” She orders Margot out.
Margot gives in, but not before she gives June a housewarming gift: a pistol she once used when she had been pursued by a stalker. June is stunned, and doesn’t want it.
“Take it,” Margot insists, “it’s a .38.”
“I don’t care what number it is,” June proclaims.
If you judge pistols by their number, you probably shouldn’t own a gun.
Margot leaves and June puts the pistol on the floor. She drinks, smokes, sweats.
The next messenger is Officer Blake (Jeremy Bobb), who came to respond to the constant ringing buzzer. He’s a week late, but it’s clear that in the crime-ridden world of 1977 New York, ringing buzzers barely makes the list. He’s just come from a shooting, and June’s sniping about the buzzer is shrugged off. He feels her out as they talk, accepting her coffee. Blake is sweaty, not cordial. He has a limp. How did he get it? Unknown, but the streets below, crammed with hoodlums and hustlers, can hurt. Blake sees June is in the wrong place. When she keeps complaining about the buzzer, he shifts gears from the semi-concerned officer to truth-teller: “You ain’t got an old man you can send down?”
June’s silence is the answer that begins his monologue.
“I knew a bird like you once. A lovely bird. Me and this girl had a nice little arrangement. I check by on her and she talks to me about all the treehuggers and shit going on in her world, and I give her the pleasure of my company. We could have an arrangement like that too, you know.” He closes in on a shocked June. “Things ain’t like they used to be. No white knight is coming to the rescue. This place, this country is changing, and it ain’t for the better.” He’s almost face-to-face when a radio call interrupts. Blake smiles. “The call of the wild.” He prepares to exit. “Hell of a cup of Joe you make there.”
“Fuck you,” June shoots back.
Blake is almost satisfied with this. “You know that little bird of mine. She thought her shit didn’t stink, too. Those fancy ideas didn’t save her when the big, bad wolf came calling.” He leaves down the stairs as she swears at him.
Yet Blake strikes a flame. June’s writer’s block almost ends when she searches for a typewriter, clearing away stacks of junk, and begins typing. Only an ‘f’. Then another. It ends with fuck you. It’s a start.
Another result of Blake’s truth-telling causes June to fish out a videocassette of an interview that she had done when she — the brave, daring, new “anti-establishment author” – was on TV plugging her book with Hans, an acerbic host. June is cold and verbally fences with him. Her posture, like her book jacket, is defiant and reclusive. When she decries society, telling an unemotional Hans that “Rome is burning,” he asks if The Patriarch was an open attack against her father, since its publication resulted in an investigation that destroyed his business. As June continues her posturing, Hans calmly fires back with the rumors that the book contributed to his death.
June is stunned. Her father is dead?
Hans tells her that he committed suicide the previous night. It was in the papers. Didn’t she know?
Her frozen, haunted eyes, that now match the book cover, shows her ignorance.
And if there are those who find this part of the script incredible, I remember a time in 1980 when I was on a bus reading the daily news and saw my father in the obituaries. This part of the film hit very close to home for me.
Hans is another Greek chorus to June’s defiance. So is her agent, pleased to hear from June when she calls. June wants money, and the agent cools, reminding her that she owes her a book and that she’s already spent her advance. Initial pleasantries lead to the agent hanging up.
June has called a dating service. Discreet Dates is the polite term the company uses for hook-ups, and her third messenger appears, Billy (Emory Cohen). Unlike Blake, Billy is quiet, cautious, and also tries to feel June out. She is again antagonistic, especially when Billy tries to kiss her, but as he leaves she calls him back, and for the first time June is unsure and almost sorry. Billy admits he’s a midnight cowboy, but only came because June called. He refuses her rumpled cash, and then she embraces him.
After fervent, sweating sex, she plays opera on the record player. Billy’s never heard music like that before. It’s her grandmother’s music.
“She must have been the saddest person in the world,” Billy observes.
June begins to open up in a brief monologue about her grandmother, and how she had visited her after the war, as she had come there when things got tough. But for the first time in the film, she goes outside herself. “What’s it like out there for you?”
He’s non-committal and only reluctantly volunteers information. In his withdrawn way, he begins a healing process for June. She softens as they talk.
He looks around at the dumpy, dingy apartment, and yet more sirens and swearing outside the window, and asks “Why this? Don’t take it the wrong way, but you don’t strike me as the kind of bird who has to pay for it.”
“I have a condition,” June volunteers. “I don’t like to leave here. If I stay in here, I won’t do any more damage like that.”
She asks Billy about his past and his pain. He reluctantly talks about being an orphan and enduring a foster father who locked him up in a barn full of spiders that crawled over him. It’s almost gothic, but he tells June he got over his arachnophobia by seeing a spider, killing it, and then eating it. A painful revelation becomes a joke. They laugh, kiss, and the buzzer sounds again. She tries to hold him back as he goes to answer the door for her, then he leaves, telling her the buzzer might be telling her to face her fears.
Billy looks and almost sounds like a soft Stanley Kowalski, and this midnight cowboy opens June up. She begins typing, and throws herself into work as the pages pile up and June edits her manuscript. No more purging. The movie ends its stasis of June under siege. As in French classical tragedy, the messengers spur our heroine to action, usually in a noble death, but here it is a gush of creativity, and perhaps it is a kind of death for the June who hid from her crime of destroying her father. Was The Patriarch that deadly?
I also wonder what effect June’s grandmother had on her. Had the woman turned June against her father? Were there secrets she told the young, impressionable girl who had obvious problems at home? No matter, because now June has a manuscript ready to go. The agent isn’t answering her phone, and the manuscript has to get to her. The only problem is that June’s still afraid to leave the apartment, so she calls on Freddy.
Freddy is wary as always, and after a ritual washing in the sink, he agrees to take the manuscript . . . for forty dollars. June is aghast. That’s all her money. She tries to bargain, frantic and vulnerable, eyes wide and child-like, pleading for help.
“Look,” Freddy says. “I see you standing there. I can tell you’re here to get something done so you can go forward with your life. And you tell me to get this done isn’t worth forty dollars to you?”
She pleads. He’s stone cold. “If it means that much, you’d do it. Even if it’s the last forty bucks you have in your life. Haven’t you learned anything from living up here?”
Over the empty beer cans and cigarettes, June gives him the forty dollars.
She thanks Freddy as he leaves with the manuscript, and he nods to the “lady crip.”
June now fears the manuscript won’t be delivered. She calls the grocery store to speak to Freddy. The lady says he doesn’t work there anymore. When June tries to find out what happened, the lady rattles off in Spanish and hangs up.
June waits, and as she looks out the window with its ghetto soap drama, thunder rolls and cracks, and then the lights go out. New York ceases to exist except as a dark silhouette. She reacts to the blackout and grabs a flashlight and candles.
Then come shouts and screams from below. It’s the wolf hour. Mobs break windows and loot. Men take a car and use it as battering ram to break into the shop across the street. June cowers behind her drapes as looters rush by and plunder. The police appear, but they only chase the chaos away for a moment.
On the radio, through the static and jumbled reports of panic and crime, a soothing voice comes: “New York has everything under control. Hospitals are safe. Be calm. New York City will prevail.”
Outside her window, New York isn’t prevailing over anything. It’s an old radio voice, almost from her grandmother’s world, irrelevant in its 1950s-style control and perfect diction. June hears noises from the hall. She stacks furniture against the door and fishes out the .38. Peering through the eyehole, her protectors speed through the hall, then disappear, not taking her money . . . money she hasn’t got.
June looks outside. In the street, a police car has been overturned and a looter is grabbed and beaten by a cop. She thinks it’s Freddy and finally forces herself out of the apartment, first limping, then steadily walking, barefoot on the filthy pavement. The cop has run off. She goes to Freddy, touches him, and . . . it’s not Freddy. The man stares at her, frightened, and bolts. June turns and sees another man. This is one of the street people who harassed Freddy. June stares in silence. The man sizes her up. He could do anything he wants, but she’s not worth it. She’s not a crip, just another creature at the waterhole. He turns and walks away.
June then sees fires in the distance. Eyes fixed on the east, she walks toward them until we see a round fire on the horizon. It’s the Sun. Dawn spills out as June is bathed in it.
The final scene shows her back with Hans. She has written Season in the Abyss, its cover not of staring eyes but of swirls that can represent flames or waves.
Now she is clean, well-scrubbed in blouse and slacks, her hair styled. I hope to God she’s given up cigarettes. She leans back and we sense some of the old frostiness is there, but now it has to compete with life. With writers the old, shy aloofness never really goes away.
Hans gives the usual book-chat generalities and asks about the protagonist.
“Is this character really you?”
The film ends.
I have problems with this script. In America, women aren’t usually called “birds,” and I suspect the writer was English. There are some clumsy uses of syntax, but June’s dilemma is strangely engaging. As a writer, I sense what June is all about, and in writers there is a classification, as Gore Vidal said, of those who invent and those who record. June records what was obviously a fierce family struggle, and as a writer she is marked by it: wounded and stagnant, but eventually recovering.
The struggle of a writer: It can be blasé to the unliterary, and too often we writers see ourselves as heroic and standing above the heads of mere mortals. June certainly has that quality, and her “ailment” is a luxury compared to the three messengers and Freddy, who have real wounds, real limps, and who must deal with what is out there in the Bronx: a ghetto of societal decline partly encouraged and nurtured by June’s social class. The Wolf Hour is a study of the battle between entropy and indulgence.
I call it a COVID movie because June’s isolation is a mental lockdown. Her class — the literary class, the people in academia, those who can take sabbaticals — easily prostrated themselves before the Coronavirus scare; perhaps we would be better to say dogma. It has the atom of a threat but is wrapped in a swirl of suspicions, moral superiority, herd mentality, and mass conformity (“we will defeat this”). June herself can be as funked-out as she wants because she has money and is able to have people bring her food, protect her, and if need be, service her.
One thing we learned from this semi-moral pestilence is that the so-called important people — the thinkers and leaders — easily abandoned their posts and hid at home, readily swallowing whatever the media told them to believe while the truck drivers, grocery clerks, police, and others who work for a living had to continue to go out and do what was necessary. Yet they are the ones being slowly destroyed by radicals, be they a mob or petty dictators in lab coats and suits who restrict and control in order to “flatten the curve.” One suspects that now that they’ve secured their beachhead, soon these experts will simply dispense with explanations and tell you to merely tremble and obey, just as they used to do in imperial China.
The action of The Wolf Hour takes place in New York during a particularly bad summer when everything broke down. What may be in store for us is a nationwide, even global, breakdown. If one recalls H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the world of 802,701 AD was divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks: the former beautiful, placidm and harmless people, and the latter deformed men slaving in underground factories who came out from time to time to feast on the Eloi.
Thus far we have had a buffer between these two cohorts: the working class of Freddy, Blake, and Billy and the Junes of the world. But if they disappear, then the Junes really will be crips, unable to defend themselves while they work on their searing stories and memoirs. If the Morlocks are turned loose, then guineas and locks will be useless, and those of higher culture will be, as Plato described artists in his Republic, social parasites. To a very desperate mob, they’ll merely be delicious.
The Wolf Hour is a meditation on where we are in the COVID universe.
As I consider June in her final interview with Hans, is she truly changed, or is she still the writer, picking bits of reality like so much fruit to use in her dinner of soul-baring, literary excellence? Speaking as one who, like June, records, I’ll hedge my bets.
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