Werewolves Within is one of those movies where if you’re not careful, you’ll miss how genuinely great it is. I enjoyed how the film played with a heady mixture of tension and laughs. It’s one of those movies that could easily fit into any number of genres at any point in the movie and yet never feels disjointed.
As feature debuts go, Josh Ruben has made one hell of a first impression. Part video game adaptation, part genre satire, part horror, and part comedy of errors, Ruben rarely trips over this mishmash of clashing tones that a lesser director might have. Instead, Ruben deftly navigates a jam-packed cast of characters and makes sure that while many are broadly drawn, they are only slightly caricatures.
But Ruben also benefits from Mishna Wolff’s script, which mines the breadth of mistrust and suspicion that seems rife in our country today. Wolff and Ruben drill down into the acrimony and mine it for all it’s worth. The residents of Beaverfield are a quirky bunch, bedeviled by eccentricities and bigotries that have an almost mercurial complexity to them.
Werewolves Within plays with its audience, teasing us by playing with our expectations and making us question our predictions. After all, it is a movie called Werewolves Within; we are expecting to see werewolves. But then it becomes clear that it’s not just a werewolf movie; it’s a “who’s the werewolf movie.” The clever part is that while I had guessed who the werewolf was, Ruben and Wolf pulled an Agatha Christie and had me doubting myself and questioning if there were any werewolves in this movie.
All this falls flat, of course, if not for the talent of every actor on the screen. The hero is naive, shy, but wholesome, newly appointed Ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson). Being new in town, he needs a guide which comes in the form of the sweet, witty mailperson Cecily (Milana Vayntrub). She’s staying at the inn run by the quirky old Jeanine (Catherine Curtain). So is Sam (Wayne Duvall), who’s in Beaverfield to try and get the town to approve the construction of a gas line.
Cecily takes Finn on tour through Beaverfield, meeting the eccentric residents, all the while filling him in on the juicy gossip. One of the joys of Wolff’s script is how often the gossip is more informative than the actual characters themselves. These are people who are pretending to be something they are not, while the gossip exposes who they are.
Except Werewolves Within finds a way to rebuke that notion. We begin to realize that these people are messed up but their pain and their joy come from a sincere place. What makes the characters so compelling is not that they are so exaggerated, but they are so human. Even by the end, when the town seems to be embroiled in a free-for-all where every person is for themself, these people, while almost cartoonish, somehow maintain a disturbing amount of humanity about them, making them all the more messily complex.
Take the Andertons, Trisha (Michaela Watkins) and Pete (Micahel Chernus), the eccentric arts and crafts couple. They are the epitome of the strange couple whose wife is overly attached to her dog while also espousing conservative dogma and rumors gleaned from conservative media. Trisha is unstable and Peter is a creep, but both give off a certain genial attitude that threatens to veer off into outright fury at a moment’s notice.
Compared to the Wolfsons, Joaquim (Harvey Guillen) and Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) are an affluent couples who are both gay and rich. They’re so rich that Devon doesn’t realize they are millionaires until Joaquim explains it to him. The couple is sweet but distant and, like everyone else, will quickly turn against their neighbor at the drop of a hat.
Wolff isn’t trying to say we’re all the same. Both she and Ruben have no real love for Trisha and Pete, but they do understand them. They realize that they are scared and feel cornered, so they lash out at those that they suspect wish them harm.
You might notice that I haven’t talked much about werewolves. That’s because the great treasure of Werewolves Within is Wolff’s and Ruben’s fascination with these characters. They take the wild conversations the characters have with each other and use these moments to add to the tension.
Characters fly off the handle, old wounds are picked at, fingers are pointed, and blame is tossed about with little care. The way some characters enter the frame, like Dr. Jane Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), the environmentalist hired to study the impact of Sam’s pipeline, is part of the joke. Werewolves Within poke at the fourth wall but never break it.
Richardson and Vayntrub have sweet chemistry. Richardson is a likable presence with sharp comedic timing and has made drawing out a stammer into an art form. However, Vayntrub almost steals the movie, if only because she has a playful quality about her. Even when she is merely on the edges of the frame, we can’t help but look to her for a reaction.
The two work off each other romantically and comically in a type of chemistry that is all too rare. In one scene, they visit the village hermit Emerson Flint (Glenn Fleshler) to try and get his help in tracking the strange beast that seems to be wreaking havoc all over Beaverfield. Ruben and his camera person Matthew Wise perfectly frame the trio as they fire one joke after another while also trying to inspire Emerson to help, only to find out that Mr. Rogers is not as well known as one would think. At least not in Beaverfield.
Wise’s camera goes a long way to giving Werewolves Within its pitch-perfect tone. Combined with Brett W. Bachman’s editing creates a film that feels Edgar Wright adjacent without ever feeling as if they are copying him. Instead, it is a tightly paced and immaculately framed and lit style that never detracts from the comedy and emboldens the atmosphere to give the actors a world to play.
Even the white-trash couple who run the local garage Dave (Patrick M. Walsh) and Charlotte (Anni Kruger) find ways to wring comedy out of the most bizarre things. Dave and Charlotte are the most broadly drawn of the characters. More than anyone else, they come the closest to outright caricature. But somehow, Walsh and Kruger never pierce the veil that Ruben and Wolff have so carefully constructed. Believe it or not, as nonsensical as they are, I grew up with people who were not so dissimilar to those portrayed. If anything, they merely add fire to the underlying comic anarchy that perpetuates much of Werewolves Within.
This is a movie that could easily have been a mess. The type of movie where you walk away praising a few good comedic turns. Instead, I’m left trying to remember everything I liked about it without giving too much away.
My enthusiasm may come from the fact that Werewolves Within is the first film I’ve seen in theaters in over a year. For me, movie theaters and baseball stadiums hold an almost zen-like quality in my heart. But even taking that into account, I don’t think I’m overselling the movie.
Werewolves Within is a genuinely impressive movie that spins many plates but never drops any of them. At times it feels like buckshot, with a bunch of jokes firing at once, and most of them hit the target. But, first movie back or not, Werewolves Within is one of my favorite movies I’ve seen this year.
Image courtesy of IFC Films
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