Editor’s note: Our review of A Wolf at the Door originally ran during last year’s SXSW, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release this week.
Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento) arrives at school to pick up her daughter but it is told by the teacher that not only has the girl already been taken by their neighbor Sheila, but that Sylvia herself called earlier granting permission. This leaves Sylvia a bit perplexed and panicked as not only did she not call the school, but she also has no neighbor named Sheila. The police arrive, and with a missing child at risk they immediately begin a hard press on everyone involved.
The detective grills the teacher, Sylvia, her husband Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz), and others, and it’s Bernardo who puts forth a name as a possible suspect. Rosa (Leandra Leal) is a young woman he’s been having an affair with, and he has reason to believe she may be involved.
A Wolf at the Door is a harrowing slow-burn of a thriller that tackles the dramatic suspense in an unconventional way. Instead of proceeding like a traditional procedural, the film quickly settles on one witness and lets the story unfold through her recounting of events. It becomes less a story of what happened to the little girl and more a tale of why it had to happen at all.
Writer/director Fernando Coimbra’s feature debut explores the unexpected costs of infidelity in a less salacious way than a film like Fatal Attraction, and while that equates to fewer scenes of Hollywood-style excitement it doesn’t lessen the impact in the slightest. Instead it chooses character depth over cheap thrills leading to fewer “moments” and more scenes of lasting effect.
Leal delivers a multi-faceted performance that, adjectives aside, is purely human. She finds the charming innocence of a woman looking for love, the sexy appeal of a seductress celebrating a conquest and the heartbreak of being used, abused, and kicked to the curb. She walks viewers through her lustful time with Bernardo and her growing friendship with Sylvia, and as we grow closer to the truth of what led to the little girl’s abduction the fear that someone is going to snap becomes unavoidable.
The film’s middle is content with the early parts of that relationship, and it works to build and enhance characters on both sides of the morality aisle. While we learn more about Bernardo and Rosa, including some rather unpleasant details, Sylvia doesn’t quite get the same treatment. It’s a shame too as her perspective offers a different take on the scorned woman concept. Equally absent are reactions to the ultimate truth from the remaining players, some of which would be emotionally satisfying while others would offer a more admittedly visceral thrill.
The titular wolf can mean many things here, from the carnivorously-cruel Bernardo to the threat of a third-party breaking the couple’s bond of fidelity, but ultimately it’s simply a metaphor for an outside force threatening the family unit. The twist on the fairy tale is that the family, or at least the adults in the family, have invited this evil into their own home.
A Wolf at the Door may not be enough of a thriller for viewers looking for big twists or big action, but those who like visiting the heart’s darker recesses and barely getting out with our own intact will find an unrelenting journey here.
The Upside: Emotionally aggressive lead performance by Leandra Leal; devastating third act
The Downside: Not enough time spent with Sylvia
On the Side: The film premiered at last year’s TIFF.