The Wolf of Snow Hollow December 24, 2020
1 Hr., 23 Mins.
hat is it with Jim Cummings’ affinity for the small-town cop in the middle of a personal crisis? The writer-director-star played one in his feature-length debut, Thunder Road (2018), and he plays one again in its follow-up, The Wolf of Snow Hollow. The characters are tortured by much of the same — a contentious divorce, anger issues, fractured relationships with their daughters. And both, at the
beginning of the movie, are thrust into a new and unexpected reality that really pushes them to their wits’ end. In Thunder Road, it was the death of the protagonist’s mother. In The Wolf of Snow Hollow, it’s the emergence of the most challenging — and urgent — case of his career. The Wolf of Snow Hollow doesn’t improve very much on what Cummings had accomplished previously; it simply rejiggers a lot of its same ideas in a more playful, creature feature-inspired package. It’s entertaining, although you finish it hoping that for his next foray Cummings doesn’t again play another version of this man. You can only be re-introduced to him so many times before you start to wonder if this is the only sort of “complicated” lead character Cummings is comfortable writing.
In The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings is John Marshall, the sheriff’s deputy of the title Utah town. At the beginning of the movie, a young woman traveling with her boyfriend to the picturesque little city is killed by what investigators are positing must be some animal. What remains of her body (her limbs are scattered around the premises like stepping stones) is covered in what look like claw marks, rips only a set of fangs could produce. Before the attack can be deemed a one-time freak accident, another murder with all these same characteristics crops up. Then another one, then another one. All the victims are young women. Cummings takes some time, albeit briefly, to establish some semblance of a backstory for each so their deaths have more of an emotional punch, and so they feel, for a moment, like more than mere targets. The woman killed at the tail end of the movie’s prologue was about to get proposed to. Another was a wife and a mother of a 3-year-old, who was with her when she was maimed.
John, though, remains the movie’s center. He’s a nervous wreck with a tendency to overreact when the movie starts (he’s also battling alcoholism, attending AA meetings after work), and he naturally becomes an even bigger one as the bodies continue to pile. One of the film’s larger defects — perhaps an unwitting one — is how these violent deaths more than anything serve as frustrations exacerbating John’s turmoil than tragedies; at the funerals, the camera always fixates on him, defined more than anything by a look of self-pity. Although the feature wants us to view John as an embodiment of classic toxic masculinity, with some comic exaggeration, like in Thunder Road, this time around I found it less humorous than tonally cockeyed. On top of the various troubles of his personal life, John is also growing progressively concerned with the well-being of his sheriff father (Robert Forster, predictably scene-stealing in his final role), who had inspired him to get into police work and who is having troubles with his heart.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow's first couple of acts competently establish a murder mystery to which we quickly want to find answers; they also establish an authentic-feeling dynamic between the small and overworked troupe comprising Wolf Hollow’s police department. (Riki Lindhome sticks out as John’s cool-headed partner, who is so laser-focused that she makes great strides in the case almost from under his nose; you wish the movie were about her.) As much as the writing around the John character feels stale, Cummings still has a knack for dialogue that feels overheard. Awkward turns of phrase and reflexes always ring true. But the movie’s final stretch feels a little rushed — like Cummings was worried that if the killer’s identity weren’t revealed in a certain amount of time, the audience might get bored.
This isn’t so. The whodunit is intriguingly laid out enough, and the relationships between the characters feel lived in enough, to make us want to spend more time in its world. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is just 83 minutes, but it finally feels more hurried than effectively economical — and it isn’t often that a less-than-90-minute-long movie could benefit from some more time. (Movies running too long is usually more common.) The movie as much represents a step back as it does a step forward for Cummings— a step back in how he has essentially copied and pasted his character (and that character’s troubles) from his previous movie without quite-as-effectively recreating a careful balance of sympathy and indictment, and a step forward in that he has proven himself capable in a new genre. Hopefully Cummings’ next project sees him venturing exclusively into unchartered territories. The Wolf of Snow Hollow evinces a filmmaker that can ably adapt when he tries. B