' ' Cinema Romantico: Werewolves Within

Monday, August 30, 2021

Werewolves Within

“Werewolves Within” begins with a quote emphasizing the importance of community splayed across the screen and underscored with ominous music. As the music crescendos, none other than America’s most famous neighbor, Mr. Rogers, is revealed as the quote’s purveyor, transforming a jump scare into a punchline, revealing director Josh Ruben’s m.o. Though the movie, based on a video game in which players are made to guess what resident of a Medieval town is a werewolf in disguise, contains its share of violent frights, it exists predominantly as a comedy, sometimes an uproarious one. In seeking to marry those laughs to satire, however, “Werewolves Within” comes up short, too broad in its rendering to truly land piercing blows against our  present-day polarization.

The story is seen mostly through the eyes of Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson), a forest ranger  reassigned to the sparsely populated northeast town of Beaverton. Once there, he meets cute with Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), her mailwoman occupation providing convenient means for a tour of the town to meets its miniscule residents, all of whom deliberately embody a stereotype, from Wayne Duvall’s gun-nut demanding Beaverton build an oil pipeline to the tech millionaire gay couple (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén) to the ornery conservative couple (Michaela Watkins and Michael Chernus). All of them too, save for Guillén, are conspicuously white, placing the conspicuously black Richardson at the center of a spiraling situation in which a series of mysterious deaths and a snowstorm leave the whole town holed up at the inn where rather than some truly piercing Jordan Peele-ish sociological horror movie breaking out it instead becomes an Agatha Christie-like guessing game.

That’s not to take anything away from the actors, all of whom are firmly committed to the bit, including the always deliciously off-kilter Watkins, deliciously off-kilter again, and generating nice comic chemistry with Chernus, not working in contrast to her mania but, Frank & Estelle Costanza-like, at the same noisy level. Truly, though, “Werewolves Within” is Richardson’s show. Though we first meet Finn in the midst of him screaming at the top his lungs, this proves another feint, his ostensible aggression prompted by a cassette tape coaching him to be aggressive; he doesn’t really have it in him. And though there are moments, like Finn’s “Heavens to Betsy” proclamation upon finding a gruesome death scene, pitched at too high a parodic ring of Mayberry folksiness, Richardson’s wide-eyed demeanor is both the movie’s funniest element and most consistent through line, maintaining a pleasant face in a world gone mad.

Throughout, Ruben wrings great mileage just from his framing, dropping narrative clues and reveals by what isn’t in the camera and then, suddenly, what is. He mines this for suspense but for comedy and satire too, like the Thoreau book heretofore not mentioned or seen that, all of a sudden, is just jutting out of Cecily’s back pocket when she and Finn are sort of making time at the town bar, hysterically underlining the very point of the book in the first place, how it conforms to idiot male’s conscripting women into their own fantasies. And as the townfolk gather at the inn, Ruben repeatedly packs multiple characters, if not all of them, into single frames, providing these wondrously obnoxious outbursts from every which way, embodying the idea of people talking over one another rather than listening.

But in becoming overly focused on solving the inherent question – who’s the werewolf? – the movie loses focuses on the people, where rather than subverting or dismembering the archetypes, they just sort of helplessly revert to them nonetheless. And when the ostensible party at the inn breaks up and everybody just goes home, it’s like the script has run out of ideas. Rather than werewolves lurking within, there is simply a werewolf among them, emitting shades of the big twist in Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman”, where rather than the Monsters who Are Due on Maple Street sitting back and shaking their heads at humankind’s penchant for being daft, they intervene. 

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