Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf (2016) is exclusively showing July 20 – August 19, 2018 on MUBI in most countries in the world as part of the series Canada's Next Generation.
Werewolf is a summer movie. Not in the blockbuster sense. Not in the genre sense either, despite any lure offered by the title. The film is a relationship drama about a methadone-dependent couple who spend a summer dragging a rusty lawn mower door-to-door in their small town to make money.
The film is set in the place where I live, Cape Breton Island. Summertime here is prime. There is a pressure to make the most of it, otherwise you blink and you’re shovelling snow again. You swim, hike, camp, sun, and socialize, if your life affords you the freedom to partake in such activities.
It was this time six years ago that I started to write Werewolf, my first feature film. I moved back to the island after living away for a couple of years. I had just finished my second short film, When You Sleep, and went to visit my friend Phil in Sydney to show him the cut. We wanted to reconnect to talk about working together on my feature. He was on house arrest at the time and living with his parents.
Phil told me to ring the door bell but was waiting for me at the front entrance when I arrived. I got a bear hug that lifted my feet off the ground and expelled all air from my lungs. The blinds were down inside the house, keeping the heat at bay. He tried to box with me and swigged aloe vera juice, insisting it would make him live forever. Excitement seeped from his pores. “When I have visitors I forget I'm stuck here,” he said.
I asked Phil what he thought of When You Sleep, which was shot in a public housing neighborhood in Halifax. “I know what it feels like to be in that place,” he said. “Where you wake up and wonder what the fuck you’re gonna do with your day. And it’s like the sun is shining down on a piece of shit.” This dread Phil described was a bug that never left my ear while making Werewolf.
Youth struggling with drug dependency or mental illness echoed this sentiment. An interview with a young man recovering from opiate addiction in Glace Bay honed in further on this arrested state. He pinpoints the moment when he wakes each day, before opening his eyes, as the interval when a sick feeling of dread washes over him. Here, behind his eyelids, the weight of the day ahead falls.
Summers haven’t felt the same for me since making Werewolf. For some, summer is a reprieve. For others it is pure suffocation. CBC reported last month that opioids are the leading cause of death for men 30-39-years-old in Canada. These latest government figures show that nearly 4,000 Canadians died from apparent opioid overdoses last year. There are a vast amount of people living their lives each day with opioid-use disorder.
How does one make a life in that arrested state? The dread of opening your eyelids. The sliver of time before you do forever imbued. A Sisyphean existence expanding before you. It’s a reality that I tried to parse out in small doses in Werewolf. The larger picture being so weighty. I kept things lean and surgical in order to dispense what I could. It’s straight substance. The urgency to tell the story is felt in the way Werewolf moves, from scene to scene, gasping for breath. I tried to never look away.