SAN ANTONIO — For a drama about looking inward, “The Good Wolf” doesn’t successfully encourage any meaningful reflection. For a movie that’s fairly brisk, it persists with the subtlety of an insurance commercial. For a story that insists on finding the good in people, its violent flashes of nihilism are more indicative of a narrative mired in existential crisis.
But at least it’s only 90 minutes long?
“The Good Wolf” is the feature debut for Texas filmmaker Will Shipley, part of the lineup for this month’s San Antonio Film Festival and doesn’t try to hide what kind of movie it’s going to be. Its opening shots consist of forest grounds and bits of security tape while, in the background, a news anchor broadcasts a warning of an escaped convict on the loose in Texas. The setup is one we’ve seen dozens, hundreds, thousands of times before in fiction, but the stakes are nonetheless set in stone on arrival.
Frustratingly, so is everything else. Successful dramas can ensnare an inquisitive moviegoer with a one-sentence elevator pitch; “The Good Wolf” does the opposite. A gold-hearted inmate befriends a fatherless boy playing in the woods—that one sentence of plot is all that’s needed for your mind to instantaneously map out where the movie probably will go and (unless this is the first film you’ve seen in 10 years) it will absolutely hit every single one of those beats, hoping we don’t notice the lack of originality on the way.
Vic Trevino plays the inmate in question. We will learn the story behind his life sentence. Young Jack Dullnig is Sam, the 12-year-old who forges a connection with him. We will learn to become used to his shallow characterization. A few others fill in the periphery of a story that skirts the natural tension offered by its conceit – Can we trust James? Is his friendly approach just an act to get what he needs out of Sam? – for a bizarre bond that finds Sam the active agent in setting the movie in motion. After he warily agrees to let James sleep (and hide from the law) in his backwoods treehouse, he bounces back a few hours later with sleeping bag, clothes and an eagerness to camp out with this sweat-streaked man 30 years his senior. Whatever happened to stranger danger?
A feigned sweetness blossoms from the connection, one that never transcends Sam’s questionable motivations (wait: what exactly are his motivations?). And events pass how we expect them to, almost right when we expect them to. Of course James ends up filling the empty father role. Of course there’s a “Wanted” poster with his face in the convenience store. Of course Sam’s mom comes home while James is taking a shower. Of course they divulge personal truths in an Independence Day-set scene that’s so treacle it’ll give you cavities. The devotion to formula is overwhelming, and the primary source of intrigue becomes which bad decision of definitely-not-lying-low will have the cops come a-knockin’.
Right about now is a good time to mention a caveat about “The Good Wolf,” and I’d be remiss not to—the movie was produced on the shoestringiest of shoestring budgets, with an estimated cost of no more than $10,000. It’s a tiny dollar amount that probably represents the cost of lunch on Day 95 of “Tenet’s” production, and it certainly isn’t a shock to hear it; Shipley’s biggest “set piece” comes in a cruel scene involving a dog, a pillowsack and some firecrackers (yeah, it’s not one of the film’s more cathartic moments). But while there are numerous examples in early (and recent!) movie history of budget limitations yielding ingeniously creative works from young filmmakers, here a miniscule budget does not a source for economic movie magic make.
Instead, I was mostly left wanting to watch the Matthew McConaughey vehicle “Mud” or this year’s Australian drama “Jasper Jones” again—two other films that are smarter and more captivating in their blend of crime drama and coming-of-age character study. There are moments in “The Good Wolf” – including the confoundingly self-defeating climax – that make its messaging feel so paradoxical that it borders on incoherence. That’s all the stranger given how straight-faced a story this is, save for a few scenes of jarringly violent character decisions that feel lifted from a bleaker movie.
The best thing about the movie is Trevino, who more often than not effectively personifies a lost soul who doesn’t know where to go – and might indeed have nowhere to go – after nearly a quarter-century behind bars. James is weary of the world and perhaps not long for this version of it, and it’s the movie’s most interesting implication that where he ends up was the only place he could end up, so long as you can get past his baffling movie-ending decision, one that makes it feel like we never really got to know the real James at all. While Trevino is capable of the simple part, thought, the child performance anchoring the movie’s sentimentality just doesn’t succeed in terms of believability, relatability or intentionality—and the sparse narrative of “The Good Wolf” needs plenty of each to be better than it is. Dullnig just isn’t done any favors when sharing the screen with Trevino, which is more often than not. You’d find better chemistry on a network news panel, and maybe a more satisfying use of your time, too.
This review was written as part of KENS 5's 2020 San Antonio Film Festival coverage.
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