Salem Horror Fest 2023: Nocent is Superb in Jury Award Winning Wolves

Adaptation in a world of idiosyncrasies isn’t always easy. Sometimes nuance goes undetected, or jokes go over people’s heads, and, for whatever reason, it can be challenging to form new bonds and connections with people. It’s human to want to put yourself out there, but making yourself vulnerable can also open you up to the possibility of heartache. Salem Horror Fest always feels like home to me, partially due to its proximity to where I live but also because of the strength of its community that keeps people coming back year after year. When the festival started in 2017, it came along at a time when I, too, was looking to belong somewhere. Watching Danny Dunlop’s Wolves on Friday night in the Cinema Salem theater, a movie about an enigmatic loaner seeking connection, the parallel wasn’t lost on me. However, Wolves’ story has a much better hook since mine doesn’t include the hunt for a killer. 

The poster for Wolves shows a man on his knees in blood covered snow, more blood spilled on the wall behind him

I went into Wolves mostly blind. I spied the trailer online, and you can see it at the bottom of this page, but it offers very little concerning the movie’s story. From the wintery setting and the cold look of the film, the suspicion that Wolves would be about werewolves seemed like an accurate assumption, especially with the trailer highlighting brutal animal attacks. That said, Wolves aligns more with an investigatory thriller, where a socially disaffected and isolated young man (Mark Nocent) begins searching for the suspect involved in a nearby string of recent animal killings. As the police and a local University psychologist plead with the public for information to stop the person before they crossover into human victims, the man looks to reach out because he recognizes a kindred spirit. 

Wolves’ unnamed protagonist stumbles through life with nervous energy. This affords him the luxury of flying under the radar most of the time as a socially awkward misanthropic character. This allows him to create opportunistic scenarios for snatching valuables from the customers of the moving service he works for and enabling him to manipulate the pawnshop workers he sells them to by acting helpless and pitiful. He considers online dating but turns his efforts to investigate a rash of animal deaths after a statement from the police leads him to believe he and the man they’re searching for share similar attributes. Ambiguity sets in as the audience becomes unsure whether they can trust the protagonist as he revisits the crime scenes. Dunlop uses the confusion to effectively raise the tension. While Wolves becomes a hunt for a would-be-killer, it consistently convinces the audience to fear its protagonist, a dynamic that makes for an inimitable experience. 

It’s impossible to discuss Wolves without bringing up Mark Nocent’s performance. Nocent is superb, walking an exceptionally fine line between his character’s mask of creepy detachment and the part of him that might be more deranged. Nocent can oscillate between emitting a neurotic vulnerability or occasional viciousness, and it’s rare to see a person physically embody a character on-screen the way Nocent does. When he was brought to the stage for a Q&A after the film, I nearly did a double take. The hunched posture, lack of personability, and nervous energy exuding from the nameless character was a far cry from the person presented with the film’s Jury Award at the festival. Nocent is literally the exact opposite, and it blew my mind just how outstanding he is in the transformative role.

A woman in running clothing holds one earbud while looking down a tunnel in Wolves.

Though Nocent is the real tour-de-force behind Wolves’ appeal, making the film as exceptional as it is, I do not doubt that Dunlop’s script and direction make that possible. It’s also clear that the writer-director is passionate about cinematography and fills portions of the film with stunning shots of the Canadian winter landscape. Though cinematic and gorgeous, some shots linger longer than necessary, affecting the pace by making this slow-burn character study move slightly slower. The images are often reflective of severe isolation and exist to make the audience feel more disquieted. While the images accomplish that, pacing is a fragile, delicate monster. Dunlop never loses the audience, but there are moments when a little less could mean a lot more. 

In the grand scheme of things, my issues with Wolves amount to no more than a nitpick. The movie is unrelentingly unsettling, playing like a depiction of true-crime events potentially derived from your own backyard. Dunlop based the story on a real-life situation from his hometown in London, Ontario, involving a similar string of animal deaths that had officials declaring a public emergency because, just like in the movie, the threat of the person responsible moving onto human prey is a disquietingly genuine cause for alarm. The fact that the case remains unsolved also adds to the fathomability of how Dunlop’s story ultimately plays out. 

A man sits on a fallen tree in a forest in Wolves

The film may use the investigative qualities of a police procedural, right down to the colorization of the film itself. The idea of a possible killer seeking a connection with another potential killer leaves itself open to more than a few Dexter comparisons. Still, Wolves is an impressive and evocative true-crime thriller, packed with taut moments and ending on a note bound to stir discussion, leaving viewers to ponder what the consequences of the finale amount to. Nocent is pitch-perfect, and Dunlop delivers a solid dread-soaked tale about the dangers of seclusion.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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