March 2012

The Wolf Knife

A Feature Film by Laurel Nakadate

Introduction by Deb Olin Unferth
Film stills courtesy of Laurel Nakadate

By the time Laurel Nakadate’s The Wolf Knife premiered, in 2010, Nakadate was already known as one of the most provocative and ambitious video artists in New York. Her fearless short films of unglamorous, middle-aged bachelors and the youthful filmmaker herself dancing to Britney Spears, stripping, or singing over a birthday cake, were “incredibly twisted,” as Jerry Saltz put it in the Village Voice. The Wolf Knife, Nakadate’s second feature film, is the daughter of this early work, and inspires similar creepy feelings about desire, domination, and voyeurism. It is also a significant artistic leap forward. Unsurprisingly, the film received nominations for an Independent Spirit Award and a Gotham Independent Film Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.”

Also unsurprisingly, the film has provoked some viewers to walk out within the first fifteen minutes of a screening. Variety called her “an interesting, infuriating artist” and wondered whether many people would be “willing to withstand what she has to say,” but then grudgingly admitted the film was worthy of respect. At the very least, one might call the film “uncomfortable.” Or one might dub it, as the New Yorker did, “a neorealist version of a Lynchian nightmare.”

Which to some might sound like the best possible use of ninety minutes of their lives.

Nakadate wrote, shot, directed, and edited. She filmed the movie in ten days on a three-thousand-dollar budget. She cast only the two leads in advance: teenage Chrissy, played by Christina Kolozsvary, whom Nakadate found while auditioning actors for her disconcerting film short Good Morning Sunshine, where girls are woken from sleep and told to take off their clothes; and Chrissy’s beautiful, hunch-shouldered sidekick, June, played by Julie Potratz, who appeared in Nakadate’s first feature, Stay the Same Never Change.

Nakadate, her two leads, and her skeleton crew of two amateur production assistants drove a borrowed car from Florida to Tennessee, script in hand, finding the sets and other characters along the way. With this leave-it-to-chance flair and in a few other ways, The Wolf Knife retains some of the mumblecore energy of her first feature. As in Stay the Same, the sequences in The Wolf Knife often view like a string of vignettes, and the dialogue in places has an improvisational quality (“Would you rather date a black prisoner or a white prisoner?” Chrissy muses on the beach. “I’d rather date a white prisoner”). The sets are “natural”—Nakadate and her crew pressed local motels and tourist sights into service—but when framed by Nakadate’s expert photographer’s hand, they have a meticulous, nonrealist feel, full of portent and bold symbolism, but exaggeratedly so, as if winking at the audience. Chrissy’s teenage bedroom is suspiciously empty—no posters on the walls, no piles of clothes or makeup, a small teddy bear the only sign of childhood. Also in mumblecore sympathies, the acting in The Wolf Knife has a naturalist feel, a hesitant, unpracticed quality, but the effect is the opposite of what you’d expect. The girls’ self-consciousness, their awkwardness, their awareness of themselves as sexual beings, become part of their characters’ personalities, and both June and Chrissy emerge as convincing, complex people who develop and change.

And there Nakadate’s alignment with plot-light mumblecore ends. The Wolf Knife has a strong story line and driving personalities. The narrative gathers force and direction. Offhand dialogue winds up being anything but offhand.

The action kicks off when Chrissy and June strike out for Nashville to track down Chrissy’s missing father. Nakadate shakes the American road-trip movie free of its favorite tropes. There’s no highway, no wind in anybody’s hair. Not even a car—the most car we get is the sound of an engine starting up and some shadowy footage of a backseat. Their travel feels stationary rather than kinetic, and the oddness of that, ironically, adds energy. They pop up in half-exotic locales, cornering a peacock or lying on a giant dinosaur, or in motel rooms where they sit on the beds and crack lewd jokes and confess to having or not having had past sexual encounters. A discussion of Michael Jackson’s death lets us know the year, but their adventure feels surreally old-fashioned. There seem to be no iPhones or even the internet. The places they go don’t have that unvaried look to them that real road-stops in real America do these days. Neither are June and Chrissy typical characters for the American road-trip genre. They are, at bottom, two quiet, sober, shy girls. They seem lifted out of America and set down in an earlier or parallel world, and are left to wander clumsily, sexily, romantically, in the direction of a possibly noble destination.

The second turn in the story occurs when we—and June—discover that their destination is not noble. In fact, Chrissy has lied: the reason for this adventure is much weirder and grosser, much more of a bad idea than we thought (not that we were convinced the original plan was going to turn out so well either). With moving pathos, June walks out on Chrissy. She paces the nighttime streets of a noisy, mean town. How can she accompany her friend on this disastrous quest? But how can she abandon her? June has no choice. She is cemented to Chrissy by a tragic childhood car accident involving her father. Chrissy was the last person to see June’s father alive, and as a result the two are forever each other’s protectors. So they continue, grimly pushing on toward their empty, ugly Oz.

If it’s a road trip without a road, it’s also a Lolita without a Humbert Humbert. If anyone, we are Humbert, eyeing the voluptuous, innocent girls. (Making the viewer feel lecherous and voyeuristic is Nakadate’s specialty.) We are invited over and over to make the Nabokovian connection. The girls’ obvious vulnerability lays a patina of tension over every scene. They seem at most moments on the verge of brutal victimhood. Even the title promises violence.

Indeed, when the climax arrives, one feels Nakadate reckoning with her own younger self: we find ourselves looking at a middle-aged bachelor alone in a room with a young girl. The impoverished home, with its strips of disco mirror on the wall, recalls the dancing and stripping of Nakadate’s early work. When Nakadate first began making those shorts as a student at Yale, ten years before, she met her lonely bachelors on the streets of New Haven and went home with them, with the agreement that she would film them. Beside her the men look stripped of authority, out of place in their own homes, uncomfortable while she is powerful.

In The Wolf Knife this is reversed. Chrissy loses control, and her exposure is shocking, and we feel exposed seeing it. The mirrors on the wall force Chrissy to look at herself, too, essentially to be her own voyeur, witness to her grievous error.

Official trailer for
Laurel Nakadate's "The Wolf Knife" (2010)

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the memoir Revolution, the novel Vacation, and the story collection Minor Robberies.

Film still courtesy of Laurel Nakadate

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