copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

they might be gods

by Tyler Sage

Part 1: visual essay

Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney). He's a loose cannon, with unexplained trauma in his background. His commander explains laconically: "He had a lot of family problems. He started to drink a little too much." The South Bronx, where much of the action takes place. It’s a new U.S. wilderness. A ruined church sits at the heart of the wilderness.
The old, the sick, and the homeless are the Wolfen’s prey. The wilderness as seen through the ... ... Wolfen’s (lens-filtered) eyes.
A drug addict staggering through the ruins, about to be devoured. The presentation of the inner city as an almost pre-civilized wilderness populated by minorities is a recurring trope of 70s U.S. film. The addict seen through the Wolfen’s eyes ... ... as he's about to be killed.
Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) swinging the bullroarer on top of the bridge pier from the opening. He's a spiritual advisor with an insider's knowledge of the animalistic who can guide the detective hero. The Wigwam bar, where the Native Americans hang out. Wilson goes into the bar and talks to Holt and a Native American woman who has no lines of dialogue and is apparently in the scene only to reinforce the earthiness of the place. Of the Wolfen, Holt says, "The smartest ones, they went underground, into the new wilderness: your cities, into the great slum areas, the graveyard of your fucking species."
Close-up of a period photo of a Native American in the bar. Holt drinks from a puddle and ... ... imitates a wolf in his confrontation with Wilson.
The film has a certain sense of humor. Here, Wilson reacts to a stuffed wolf in the biologist's office, when we've figured out what is going on but he hasn't. Some of the humor is more macabre. In this scene, the police commander is decapitated and we see the eyes blink and lips move. Several scenes earlier, the coroner has delivered a semi-serious soliloquy on the way in which guillotined heads in the Middle Ages did just that. Biologist Ferguson sadly watches film clips of wolves’ amazing qualities and their destruction by humans. In a passionate outburst early in the film, he explains that the white people wiped out the wolves, Native Americans, and buffalo in what he calls "the genocide express."
In Ferguson's film clips, the wolves are shot from helicopters and held up as trophies by hunters. Horror fans, note the similarity of this shot to the opening of John Carpenter's 1982 classic The Thing. Unfortunately, Ferguson isn't the only one watching these clips. A Wolfen has found him and sees this film clip through the window. In plot terms, this leads to Ferguson's demise. In thematic terms, it plays on the film's notions of the layerings of vision. The shot is of a human watching wolves killed on the screen, in turn watched by one of the super-wolves itself. The movie plays with the notion of seeing. Here, a view of the church as seen through the scope of a rifle is contrasted...
... with a shot, from the point of view of a Wolfen, of the man looking at the church through the scope. Later, we're given yet another shot of a man watching film clips. This time it's Wilson himself, watching aerial footage of the church. Here, security officers introduce us to Eddie Holt by viewing his images on split screen.
The film continually contrasts these ideas of human seeing with the idea of Wolfen-vision. Here the Statue of Liberty is put in ironic context as a symbol of human freedom in a movie in which the only free things are the non-human Wolfen. Another recurring motif is the fracturing and reflecting of images in the film. Here, in the first scene, the face of wife of the developer is cut apart by wind chimes. In a matter of moments, she will be devoured. Later on, Wilson is similarly cut apart ...
... while regarding himself. The police psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Verona) regards herself. Here, holding a pistol and a cat, Neff is cut apart by shadows.
The approach of fractured framing is used for more than just close-ups. Here, Wilson and the coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines) investigate a body, seen upwards through a grate. A Wolfen views the wilderness of the South Bronx through the frame of a widow. n the opening, we are given a similarly composed view.
The Wolfens' special vision comes through glowing eyes. Once again, fracturing and reflection is used to set up the final confrontation in the developer's penthouse. The final confrontation.
Crosscutting establishes ... ... the ultimate rapport between Wilson and the Wolfen. Notice that the final shot ...
... of the Wolfen's eyes is seen with Wolfen-vision, implying that Wilson has come to see the world as they do. This is the culmination of his civilized-man's journey of purification into the heart of the wilderness. Wilson smashing the developer's model, seen through the eyes of a Wolfen. A tidy symbolic summation of the action: the ruins of the model under a wolf-skin rug.
The film closes with a series of fades. First, Wilson and Neff fade into a shot of Wolfen running through the city. Then, we cut back to Eddie Holt on the tower of a bridge, swinging his bullroarer. This too fades into shots of the Wolfen. Finally, the Wolfen gallop back to their inner-city wilderness and the film fades to black.

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