Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Wolf Lake (1980) Burt Kennedy

I'd be interested to know what went on behind the scenes with the releasing of this one. I'm guessing the pitch was easy but the finished project was a pretty difficult sell, which would explain why this potentially rather fine film has a collosal, gaping flaw in it that threatens to (though without quite succeeding) utterly ruin the experience. See, this is one of those films that looks like it should be a gnarly exploitation thriller but is actually a pretty slow moving and somber affair building up to an intense but not redemptive finale, a serious film with a serious point to make. Except that someone apparently took their potential audience for idiots and decided to cater to this by changing the film in the most idiotic way imaginable, inserting utterly needless flash-forwards that spoil key events of the finale early on in the film. Now maybe, just maybe there was some notion of highlighting the inevitability of such climatic tragedy. Maybe the flash-forwards really were an artistic decision and not just a craven attempt to keep bums in seats with a few action shots to tide them over during the build-up. Whatever the intent it was an abject fucking failure in artistic terms, and seems to have done the film no favors in the long term as nowadays it largely languishes in obscurity despite its other merits. This my friends, is why the majority of moneymen and distributors in the movie industry should be sterilised. Or to be fair if I am making an untrue assumption, sometimes artistes need a swift sharp blow to the back of the head.

My ire over, Wolf Lake is otherwise pretty sweet. War veteran Charlie and his pals head out to the titular lake for a buddies weekend of drinking and shooting, finding the place in the care of dissolute long-hair David and his beautiful girlfriend. Tensions are immediate, but things really go downhil when it transpires that David is an army deserter. See, Charlie has personal reasons for disliking army deserters, and out in the woods away from civilisation, well no prizes for guessing this isn't a situation that will go well. But what makes the film really work is how well it conveys underlying macho tension beneath its contemporary issues. Charlie (Rod Steiger) and David (David Huffman) were never going to get along, Charlie a grizzled, fractious type with baggage, alpha status pretentions and an unshakeable sense of his own "right", David almost his younger reflection, but not quite past the point that turns character to stone. Both performances are very fine and their clashes make for rewarding drama, with Steiger in particular drawing depth and sympathy from a character who could have been a standard monster. Jerry Hardin as Charlie's friend Wilbur also fuels the drama, a beta among alphas who becomes a catalyst, while the few other cast members make suitable impressions, the gorgeous Robin Mattson in particular as girlfriend Linda who happily for the audience gets topless a couple of times. The film takes a goodly long time to get to it's action, but the attractively desolate location makes for nervy atmosphere and the brewing themes make for a modicum of suspense despite the early spoilers. Then when things really get moving its quality stuff, violent, shocking and well constructed in its intensity and feeling of mayhem. So it's a film that works. Just about. Honor, family, loyalty, vengeance, these tensions inherent to the red-blooded male that threaten ever to overwhelm, powerful stuff. Sex and violence, always welcome. But good God, what a painful, needless botch along the way.

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