Talk about being “carried away!” How about carried away by wolves? How about being so carried away you BECOME a wolf? Sounds like fun to me. And it IS when horror movies recognize their kinship to comedy, which -- after all -- is based on incongruence, exaggeration, unexpectedness. I haven’t read Harrison’s book, which was written -- they say -- while he recuperated from a fall off a cliff. Here are two url’s if you want to read more about Harrison and his writing, which is worth doing.
Mike Nichols knows his comedy. The first and most basic principle -- which I was taught by Alvina Krause at Northwestern -- is that it must be played with an absolute reality. A little too much fantasy and the whole thing goes over-the-top and is ridiculous instead of hilarious. Though the anxiety of a late-night icy drive on a lonely road is real enough and trying to see through a fogged-up windshield is something every driver understands, the animatronic wolves at the beginning of the movie are very close to ridiculous. (The movies always have a terrible time with wolves, which they love as symbols but find unmanageable as actors.)
This movie is simply a metaphor, but a satisfying one. We grasp at once that being a publisher is like belonging to a wolf pack -- now more than ever! Print on Demand -- what is that? Hunt and peck like birds? And the set is one of the fascinating dimensions, as usual: the elegant and expensive estate set in the middle of the forest versus mystical Manhattan with zoos and parks prowled by brutal gangs. Makeup here is also helpful, never getting quite out-of-control in the transformation from culturally veneered organization man to hairy meat-eater. I loved the touching moment when Jack first notices his hairy hand and tries to carefully cut the fuzz off into the toilet bowl. (We know hairiness is a sign of aging for men -- I once had a boss I constantly startled in the act of trimming his nose hairs.) Of course, Christopher Plummer has by now convinced us that he’s the deadliest of predators without even pretending to be a wolf.
But Jack Nicholsen is such a natural for this part, such a mensch of a wolf, that we see right through the yellow contacts and twisted mitts. Michelle Pfeiffer -- a little more of a problem. The yellow eyes are nice, though, especially in the last fade which implies that these two wolves are fate-mates. What the heck was the spider tattoo on her shoulder supposed to prove? That she was in charge of the narrative web all along? I was relieved that the young challenger wolf (James Spader) was killed the old-fashioned way: riddled with bullets. And I hope Jack remembered to go back and bite that old professor guru (Om Puri) before he died.
Anyone who knows Jim Harrison’s work would expect that becoming a wolf was not a bad thing, except maybe from the point of view of an ungulate, and too many people in the corporate culture have become exactly that -- spooky grass-eaters. I used to say, smart-ass-style, “Was that person raised by wolves?” to imply that they had no manners, no protocol, no consciousness of others. One day a friend rounded on me and said, “You know, you should stop saying that. Wolves have a very strong sense of relationship and observe all sorts of rules and diplomacies.” I was abashed to realize this is right, but I still haven’t been able to come up with a decent alternative animal. They ALL behave themselves and nurture their children better than some humans.
It’s interesting and instructive to watch this movie alongside “Carried Away” where Dennis Hopper is treated by his school board much the same way as Jack by his boss. The gorgeous and “bad” blondes both signal freedom and escape -- with the added attraction of sticking a finger in the eye of their father -- but the card is played in quite different ways. Pfeiffer really IS fighting for freedom and her father really IS a captor. The father character in “Carried Away” is simply resigned and his daughter is offering a false freedom that could result in lifelong imprisonment, one way or another. Neither movie really “gets” wilderness, woods, animal life in a whole ecology. But then few Hollywood directors have much experience with all that, let alone the poor cinematographer or editor.
The secret to modern lycanthropy is appropriateness, the protocols of the werewolf. Jim Harrison has it down pretty well, even offering recipes for meat-eating humans. This movie is kinda old now (1994, two years before “Carried Away”) but "Wolf" isn’t creaky. It’s pretty much a classic and so is “Carried Away,” though people will probably respond to one more than the other, depending on their tastes. I like ‘em both.