Werewolf ★★★½

[7]

Although this somewhat humble, low-to-the-ground debut bears passing resemblance to other notable work -- Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven and Keane and the Dardenne brothers' The Child and Lorna's Silence in particular -- there's a cumulative impact of having seen something fresh and new, of having observed the opening salvo from a filmmaker who will go on become a significant creative force. McKenzie's double character study of two methadone addicts in Nova Scotia strikes a near-perfect balancing act between full identification with its subjects, on the one hand, and a clear-eyed objectivity on the other, an ability through editing, camera angle, and perspective, to put some distance between the protagonists' self-delusional bullshit and the film itself.

Our two-against-the-world couple, Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Nessa (Bhreagh MacNeil) are never not the focal point of Werewolf. We are up close, riding shotgun with their paranoia, desperation, and humanity. We see them going to the pharmacy chugging their doses, talking to doctors at the public clinic, hustling for lawn mowing work, and struggling to find places to sleep. At the start, Blaise is the dominant partner and Werewolf's primary point of view. He is belligerent, always ready to argue with anyone -- a social worker at the housing office, a potential employer, even the guy who wants to repair their busted mower -- at the drop of a hat. By his reckoning, the system is rigged, everybody is out to get him, and his problems are the fault of all these petty martinets taking him for a ride.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, McKenzie shifts the film's perspective to that of the shier, less combative Nessa. We see her struggle to manage her volatile relationship while at the same time actually hold down a real job at a Dairy Queen-like ice cream stand, all the while working to stay clean. By the end, Werewolf underscores the toxicity of Blaise, largely by turning his drugged-out prattling to Vanessa (she eventually adopts her full name) into a sort of buzzing noise that is infecting her headspace. As the film ends, we see Vanessa at the crossroads of decision, her choice obvious. But we are left wondering whether she will be strong enough to break free and survive.

McKenzie, who edited Werewolf as well as writing and directing, makes subtle but effective use of composition and color, edging Blaise and Vanessa to different parts of the frame, often showing them negotiating dividers or panes of glass in the pharmacy, or moving through the hilly suburbs, slight figures who cannot see the ground right in front of them. The lawnmower, which Vanessa usually drags around while Blaise spazzes around, is also a physical rhyme or stand-in for a baby carriage, an intellgent allusion to the way that the thing that is missing can actually be the heaviest anchor weighing you down. Just a really fine film.