Edgar Allan Poe, in his short-story The Black Cat, describes the warped mind’s overpowering impulse to violence. This lust, when activated, rages with a meaningless but luminous intensity. He says:
One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame.
This “fiendish malevolence” is the feeling emanated by the main protagonist in Jim Taihuttu’s 2013 crime drama, Wolf. To understand the film, we must understand this irrational “fiendish malevolence” Poe talks about. Wolf wonderfully chronicles the downward spiral of a thoroughly unlikeable character; we dislike him, yet we can’t take our eyes off the screen.
Majid (Marwan Kenzari) is the son of Moroccan immigrants living in Utrecht. He is an ex-con working at a flower auction warehouse who cares little about his own life, and even less about the lives of others.
The film begins with a startling scene on the late-night streets of Utrecht that showcases Majid and his friends’ predatory natures. He speaks amiably to a friend for a while, and then they make small talk with a couple drunk Dutchmen. And then, with little emotion and even less hesitation, they smash the glass of a storefront and steal a motorbike.
Majid’s problem is that he is a violent sociopath. His parole officer futilely tries to interest him in his own future. His father begs him to get back on the right path. He has a younger brother who genuinely looks up to him. And it is all to no avail; Majid prefers to spend his days robbing ATMs and beating up other thugs. His one redeeming quality is that he is an incredibly talented kickboxer.
Even if he can’t see it, we know his days are numbered.
I was drawn to this film because I know so little about the European criminal underworld. In the past couple decades, European gangster films have been racking up a very impressive track record.
Nicolas Refn’s three Pusher films broke new ground in giving a stark portrayal of this world, with the Serbian character “Milo” representing immigrant organized crime in Copenhagen. Jacques Audiard’s unforgettable film Un Prophete (2007) proved that a gangster drama with an Arab protagonist could add something new to the genre.
But it would be a mistake to see Wolf as some kind of commentary on Moroccan immigration. This is not a film about the Arab immigrant experience in The Netherlands. Majid speaks Dutch to his friends, and was born in Holland. Arabic is only heard at home.
This is a criminal character study, pure and simple; unlike Audiard’s Un Prophete, there is no sympathy shown for the main character, nor is any attempt made to probe his motivations. In Wolf, we are simply given a ring-side seat to a man’s pointless self-destruction.
In between petty crimes, Majid needs extra money to finance his cancerous brother’s medical care. At a local kickboxing gym, we discover just how good of a fighter he is, and how brutal as well. He is steered to an association with a Turkish crime boss, who obviously seeks to exploit the violent and seething Majid. The crime boss, we discover, not only promotes fights, but also masterminds armed robberies.
What we are left with is the fascinating spectacle of a brute who is unable to turn off his rages, unable to control himself, and unable to stop doing things against his own self-interest. Shot in black and white, in an apparent homage to Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull, the film is not without flaws.
The cast features many stereotyped but necessary characters. We have Majid’s father (Abdelkrim Bahloul), who hates his son and can’t believe God has cursed him with such criminal progeny. We have the suffering mother (Baya Belal) who can do little more than pray and hide in a corner. We have Majid’s younger brother Tarik (Mohammed El Mimouni) who seems to be a good kid, and yet somehow doomed by association.
We have Majid’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Tessa (Bo Maerten), who loves the drama and violence of being around thugs. We even have the angelic older brother Hamza (Nasrdin Dchar), who provides a welcome relief from the depravity shown on screen.
Despite some minor limitations in character development, Wolf is a compelling film, and very much worth seeing. Some critics have complained about the apparent clichés in the film, but these critics miss the point. The lives of criminals generally are already clichés.
There are usually no deep reasons why they do what they do, and those seeking such motives have read too many Charles Dickens novels. Inexplicable depravity is the order of the day. In the real world, criminality is only the unrestrained urge to satisfy the basest human desires. And this is something that Wolf does not flinch from portraying.
In short, this is a worthy addition to the catalogue of modern European crime dramas. Americans with little knowledge of the ethnic subcultures shown here can learn a great deal, as I did.
Some critics also found fault with the film’s apparent lack of an ending. I didn’t see it that way. There is an ending, and we all know what it is. The director, Jim Taihuttu, is wise enough to let us fill in the blanks on our own.
And if we’ve been paying attention, we know precisely what to fill in. Right down to the letter.
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