John Marshall (Jim Cummings), deputy sheriff of the small Utah skiing town of Snow Hollow, has a lot on his plate. He’s trying to maintain a relationship with his teenage daughter (Chloe East) while keeping his ex-wife at arm’s length; he’s attending AA meetings as a recovering alcoholic; and he’s essentially transitioning into running the police department himself even as his dad, Sheriff Hadley (Robert Forster), resists the notion of retirement.
And, oh yeah, the town is suddenly plagued by a series of brutal murder-mutilations that look like nothing less than the work of a werewolf.
That’s the premise of The Wolf of Snow Hollow, the second full-length feature from Cummings, who also writes and directs in addition to starring in the picture. If The Wolf of Snow Hollow sounds somewhat like a genre-flavored remake of Cummings’ debut, the micro-budget comedy-drama Thunder Road, that wouldn’t be wildly off-base. Cummings performed multiple duties on that film as well, playing a small-town police officer dealing with a bad divorce, a rebellious daughter, the death of a parent, and his own anger management. Only that one didn’t include an eight-foot-tall monster.
The genre elements lie uneasily next to the general air of Fargo-esque quirkiness in The Wolf of Snow Hollow, never quite coalescing into a story that feels thematically or narratively cohesive. The movie does boast its charms: Cummings and cinematographer Natalie Kingston shoot the hell out of the expansive, snowy locations–you can practically feel the chilly mountain air coming off the screen–and Ben Lovett provides an evocative score (Cummings did the music himself for Thunder Road).
The filmmaker also gets strong work from some–but not all–of his cast. One of the standouts is Riki Lindhome (Knives Out) as Officer Julia Robson, Marshall’s patient, sensible and dogged right-hand woman who quietly keeps things moving as her superior officer begins to crack up. The other is Forster, adding dignity and his always welcome working man gravitas to what sadly ended up being his final film role before his death almost exactly a year ago.
Others in the ensemble are inconsistent, perhaps struggling with the movie’s tone themselves, but none more so than the leading man. On paper John Marshall seems like a rich, layered character, a man who is simply in way over his head on every front but thinks he can handle it all. At first, Cummings seems to manage that from an acting standpoint, but somewhere in the middle of the movie he ceases to modulate his performance and turns it into all manic energy all the time, nearly shouting or whining every line and becoming more irritating than empathetic.
This adds to the confused nature of the film overall, and even though Marshall shows some unexpected and bracing courage during the movie’s climactic confrontation, you’re ready to say goodbye to him even after the scant 90 minutes that have passed (by the way, the climax itself borrows heavily from the endings of two Hannibal Lecter thrillers, Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, which may be a homage on Cummings’ part but can be distracting).
Even if the parts of the plot don’t come together smoothly, there is an arc to the character of Marshall that makes one wish Cummings had stayed behind the camera this time and handed the role over to an actor who could handle the performance with more subtlety. It’s not easy to tell the guy who is clearly the sole vision behind the film that his acting work in it may be the weak link, but Cummings may simply still be following the micro-budget playbook of doing a lot of the movie himself–even as he (hopefully) gets more money to work with–without taking a long, hard look at whether he should be taking on the responsibility of starring in it as well.
The lovely images of the town, the score, some of the performances, and a few of the comedy bits work well enough to keep The Wolf of Snow Hollow (which was curiously titled The Werewolf on the link we watched) at least intriguing to stay with. But next time out, Cummings should perhaps downplay the less successful genre elements and perhaps not put himself front and center. As a filmmaker who already wears many hats–and not unlike his character–he’s got his hands full already.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow opens in theaters and on demand this Friday, Oct. 9.