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George MacKay, on all fours and snarling, in Wolf Photo: Focus Features

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In the ferocious drama Wolf, one of today’s best young actors unleashes the beast

In a clinic for young people who think they’re animals, Lily Rose Depp and 1917’s George MacKay get feral

In films like Marrowbone and 1917, George MacKay has steadily amassed a career built on solid physicality and the menace, fragility, braggadocio, and scorn he can summon from within it. In the dizzying drama Wolf, it’s impossible to look away from him. The carnality, sensuality, and spontaneity he brought forward in the underseen True History of the Kelly Gang emerges again in Wolf. His work is, once again, the emotional core of a film. Writer-director ​​Nathalie Biancheri enjoys pushing his character to the absolute limit, and MacKay is up to the challenge.

Some elements of the film could play out as goofy. Biancheri evokes Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster in its surreal imagining of a psychiatric clinic run by professionals who thrive on abusing their patients. Children and teenagers who’ve been convinced they identify with certain animals run around wearing oversized plush tails and paws, neighing or quacking, and otherwise adopting the mannerisms of their chosen animals. But McKay is the anchor that keeps Wolf from mockery. He seems rigid and unmovable one moment, fluid and lithe in another. He plays his snarling, stalking character totally straight, fully devoting both his expressive reactivity and his imposing body language. The strength of his performance makes it easy to overlook Wolf’s repetitive script and its vague development for supporting characters.

Biancheri centers on Jacob (MacKay), a twenty-something introduced fully nude in the forest, foraging on all fours, sniffing the air, and rolling and rubbing his body around in the ferns, leaves, grass, and dirt. The tension between the joy Jacob exudes and the “Wait, what?” confusion inspired by his behavior are the narrative thrust of Wolf, which focuses on the time Jacob spends in a “curative” clinic. Jacob believes he’s a wolf, and he wants to leave society and live in the woods. His parents are terrified he won’t lead a normal life because of what they perceive to be his mental illness.

George MacKay, standing shirtless and barefoot at the edge of a parapet, howls at the moon in Wolf Photo: Conor Horgan/Focus Features

The other patients at the clinic, who believe themselves to be squirrels, parrots, German shepherds, horses, and spiders, have been there for months or years. They’re all under the control of the Zookeeper (a surprisingly terrifying Paddy Considine), a doctor who believes in punishing and humiliating his patients to break out of what he considers their delusions. Everything the children and teens do, the Zookeeper uses against them. He encourages them to write about the feelings associated with their dueling human and animal selves in journals, which he sneeringly reads out loud to their peers. Considine’s line delivery of “My penis, it dangles down, gross and floppy” while reading Jacob’s journal, and MacKay’s accompanying look of resignation turned into fury, captures the push and pull between these two men. The Zookeeper thinks he’s a savior, but the clinic’s patients don’t exactly want to be saved. What kind of compromise could span that schism? Or what kind of manipulation?

Species identity disorder, or species dysphoria, gets a brief mention in The Hunger Games franchise, and was the butt of some jokes in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But Wolf focuses less on why these patients feel this way, and more on how their differences are treated as ugly or other. That approach leads to some stilted characterizations, in particular that of Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), the mysterious sort-of patient who lives at the clinic with one of the other doctors. The only recurring thing we learn about her is how fully her guardian has convinced her that human men will sexually abuse her, with statements like “Don’t you remember what happens to pretty girls like you that have nothing?” Wildcat repeats that lesson as “Do you know what happens to girls like me out there?” That’s a thought-provoking suggestion about the differences between animals and humans that the film renders only simplistically, where Biancheri could have pushed further.

While the broad strokes of Wolf and the ways certain characters face off or pair up are predictable, Biancheri elevates the proceedings with visual language that emphasizes the characters’ loneliness. The question isn’t how authentic they are in their belief that they’re actually animals, but how people in power and authority act when their understanding of the world is challenged.

Wolf surrounds that uncertainty with tension and dread. The Zookeeper forces his patients to wear leashes, and uses them to force submission. A scene that bounces bounce back and forth between the Zookeeper’s torture of Jacob and another doctor leading the other patients in an overly loud, grotesquely silly dance class emphasizes the hypocrisy and inefficiency of this place and its tactics. During the patients’ meal time, the clinic plays videos of a snake slowly eating a frog, incrementally inching up its body, and lions feasting on a felled animal, blood matting in their fur and dulling their teeth. Wolf positions the clinic’s attempts to build fear in their patients so they amplify our anxiety, too. It’s an effective technique.

Lily Rose Depp, with cat whiskers painted on her face, looks distrustfully offscreen in Wolf Photo: Focus Features

But practically everything about Wolf truly relies on MacKay, who has to be convincing enough in his at-odds identity to simultaneously draw viewers’ empathy and promote their unease. And he is, for every minute of this film’s 98-minute run time. Even as Wolf places him in situations that play to the most simplistic understandings of certain animals, MacKay captures the disconnect at Jacob’s core. In a nighttime scene where he arches his body off the bed and fights back his natural inclination to howl at the moon, Biancheri steps back with wide compositions to let us see his writhing discomfort. Close-ups of his rapidly moving hands as he hastily digs a grave, and his face as he struggles to smile during a lesson about communicating human joy give other glimpses into his transformative body language.

The sound design helps, too: the dull thunk of his body as he helplessly throws himself around a cage, and the hoarse snarl of his growls as he advances on Depp’s Wildcat, with minor variations in tone taking his character from curious to aroused. Whatever the film’s flaws may be, none of them comes from this actor or this performance. “There is always a point of no return,” the Zookeeper says. MacKay makes that statement real with his phenomenal turn in Wolf.

Wolf opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, Dec. 3.