The Beast Within: Bart Freundlich combines sports and addiction drama in Michael Shannon-starrer 'Wolves'

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Writer/director Bart Freundlich mixes two potent types of drama—family and sports—in Wolves, out this Friday from IFC Films. Michael Shannon racks up another indelible performance (really, I’m not sure there’s another kind of Michael Shannon performance) as Lee Keller, a volatile pater familias with a gambling problem and a heavy case of resentment against his basketball star son Anthony, played by newcomer Taylor John Smith. Rounding out the trio is Carla Gugino as Jenny, who enables her husband’s gambling addiction despite knowing, on some level, the harm he’s doing to their family.

Conflict simmers under the surface in every scene, with rich, nuanced performances from Shannon, Gugino and Smith hinting at a whole boatload of capital-I Issues. (It’s no surprise to hear that Freundlich views the story of Wolves as heavily Oedipal in nature.)

The source of most of those issues is Lee, a failed novelist-turned-college professor who vents his frustrations by constantly needling his son, who has his whole future in front of him instead of in the rear-view mirror. Lee’s an ugly character—irresponsible, mean, emotionally and at times physically abusive—and Shannon doesn’t shy away from that ugliness.

“There’s not a lot of actors who are willing to find humanity in a character like Lee, but also not be worried about portraying themselves in a positive light,” Freundlich says of his star. “Mike’s willing to find a way to relate in a very real way to the character and all his flaws and all his bullying qualities. But he’s not worried about how he’s going to be received by the audience. He’s just willing to portray that person. Most actors want to find a way to be liked.”

While Shannon embraces Lee’s faults, the actor has a natural charisma that keeps Lee from being some cardboard ogre; you can understand why Jenny, in particular, keeps giving him so many chances. At the same time, you know Lee’s luck (such as it is) will eventually run out, his inevitable fall lending the film a tragic air. “That’s the quality of an addict,” Freundlich says, “He does what he does to have everyone think he’s doing OK and has it under control. But the reality is, we can all see that he’s a train ready to collide with another train.”

Jenny, in this mix, is far from the cowering, weepy-eyed victim who populates other addiction dramas. Embodied with a compelling mix of strength and vulnerability by Gugino, she’s a nuanced character herself, someone who gave up on her own artistic dreams so her husband could flourish only to suffer the indignity of seeing that husband piss all their chances away.  But she’s not some paragon of virtue herself. “So often, I think the person who’s with the addict is someone who’s making choices, whether they know it or not,” says Freundlich. “Carla did something that was so interesting. I know that she felt really uncomfortable not defending her son—just as a human being. As Carla. She felt very uncomfortable. But because that’s the way the script went, she used that discomfort to fuel the character. She felt the instinct to protect him, but she had to squash that in the name of keeping everything status quo. And I think that lent itself to a really intricate version of a co-dependent enabler. It’s another version of tragedy.”

There’s a scene early on, after we learn Anthony is at risk of being thrown out of school for not paying tuition, where Lee wins several thousand dollars. Instead of getting serious and telling her husband, “OK, this is great, it’s time to pay our son’s tuition and stop it with the gambling now,” she joins him in drunken celebration their disappointed son looks on. It’s an intense scene to watch. And, reflects Freundlich, to film. “Mike came alive in that scene. I hadn’t planned how elated he was going to get. Having it proven that he was right, he can do this. And paying generous compliments towards his son. He really portrayed an addict beautifully there… Taylor was so deep in character during [filming] that. He was really shaken up by that scene. Because I had been talking to him about how betrayed his character would feel to see his mother cavorting with his father, who had just hurt him the night before. Almost as if she had chosen a side.”

Impending doom of the familial variety is interwoven in Wolves with your classic sports drama. Anthony’s the school hero, poised to take his basketball team—the Wolves, natch—to finals. A scholarship to a prestigious school is all but his… except for the fact that, as his prospective coach tells him, he’s too hesitant, too unwilling to put himself out there and be aggressive. It’s a situation that mirrors Anthony’s home life, Freundlich explains. “The idea was that Anthony has tried to stay small to make enough room for his father and all of his father’s rage and disappointment. And in staying small in that part of his life, unfortunately you can’t compartmentalize that stuff, so he stays small on the basketball court, too. Though people can see what he’s capable of, he’s unable to advocate for himself, because he’s trying to stay out of his father’s way.”

It was important for Freundlich that “what’s happening on the court directly correlates to something that Anthony’s going through emotionally.” That’s a key element of the sports movie genre, after all—that sports are more than just throwing and jumping and running, but can provide a window into the inner lives of its participants. “My favorite sports movies, which are things like Rocky or Hoosiers or Miracle—or even The Great Santini, which has a great sports element to it—are all really, really supported by three-dimensional characters,” Freundlich says. “That was definitely my goal, and I’ve had some really good feedback from people who are not basketball fans who saw themselves in the family drama.

“I even had people who looked at it as a kind of allegory for what’s going on in the country right now, what it feels like to be so bullied, what it feels like to… collude in covering up your own voice in the name of trying to keep things status quo and not try to ruffle people’s feathers. I think there’s something hopefully really satisfying and cathartic about watching someone finally say, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to be who I am, and you’re going to hear me.’”

If you can read modern-day politics into Wolves, that wasn’t intentional on the part of Freundlich, who started work on what would become Wolves in the tenth grade. “It sat there dormant for a while, and then in my 20s and 30s I dabbled and wrote versions of the scripts. And finally, when I was about 41 or 42, I reapproached the story in earnest with a much different perspective of being an adult, being a father… I had more of a perspective on telling a coming-of-age story not being in the middle of being someone who’s coming of age.”