“Wolf” is the type of film that I’ve seen at least a hundred times before in my moviegoing life and would happily see a hundred times more if it was anywhere near as well-made as Jim Taihuttu’s immersive yarn about a recent parolee who is looking to put his life back on the right track, though that doesn’t necessarily mean staying clean.
Shot in luscious black and white, the film’s plot is nearly as classic as the monochrome, following Majid, a petty thief of Moroccan descent living in Utrecht who just spent a summer in prison for undisclosed reasons. He has incentive to stay on the straight and narrow, with two brothers to take care of – one around the same age as him who is dying of cancer and a much younger one of middle school age whom he doesn’t want scrapping around like him.
Still, he loathes the low-paying work he does at a flower auction and knows he has another card to play, having his friend Adil (Chemseddine Amar) drop him off at the local boxing gym so he can perhaps pick up a few local matches. He’s a raw specimen, both in the ring and out of it, but streetwise both mentally and physically, making him a force to be reckoned with and someone worth the time of the local crime kingpin Hakan (Cahit Ölmez).
None of this can end well for Majid, who bobs and weaves his way through bad situations, whether it’s in service of Hakan, who wants him to help his nephew on odd jobs collecting cash, or evading the local authorities or worse, his disapproving father whose roof he stays under. But “Wolf” is nearly as elusive, transcending its roots in genre tropes to work as an involving character study, a gripping thriller and a fascinating portrait of the underworld that lives just beneath the surface of the Dutch suburbs populated by outcasts largely filtered out of society by their race.
Save for an underwritten object of affection for Majid, there’s an unmistakable authenticity to the Netherlands Taihuttu depicts, the cultural tensions between rich and poor, old and young and all the different ethnicities that only need to be illuminated slightly to become the stuff of high drama. Perhaps that’s why Marwan Kanzari, who plays Majid, is so ideal in the role, naturally oozing intensity but bringing along with it an intelligence and sensitivity that continue to surprise you throughout the film. No doubt the character’s vulnerability under the muscle, the film’s kickboxing angle and its North American debut at Fantastic Fest will remind some of Matthias Schoenarts’ breakout in “Bullhead,” but “Wolf” is a slightly different animal, taking as much pleasure in its energetic action sequences as it does in its more intimate moments.
Fortunately, Taihuttu doesn’t ever need to choose between the two, deftly weaving together all three parts of Majid’s life without hitting an insincere note. By the time the writer/director actually puts together a montage combining these contradictory aspects of the character — starting, of course, with a more traditional admiration of Majid’s MMA training before spiraling out into views of the life he’s trying to live to set an example for his younger brother and the one he’s compelled to in order to pay the medical bills of his older one, all set to the throbbing beat of Dutch gangsta rap — “Wolf” packs a punch as hard as its lead.