‘Wolf’ Gets Lost in Subtlety

This year’s ‘Sneak Previews with Michael Berlin’ began on Nov. 7 with ’10th and Wolf,’ the directorial debut of Bobby Moresco, who co-wrote last year’s ‘Crash’ and co-produced last year’s Best Picture winner, ‘Million Dollar Baby.’
No stranger to solemn drama and complex interpersonal relationships, Moresco injects an effective sense of quiet hostility and uncertainty into this story about the Philadelphia mob, but the result is so vague with the details that it ends up feeling unfulfilling and frustratingly ambiguous.
The story only explains as much as needed for plot developments to make sense, and fails to pay any real attention to the characters we’re supposed to care about. In a film ostensibly about three close-knit friends, each of the friends feels less like a real character than a foil to play off the other two.
The three friends are brothers Tommy (James Marsden) and Vincent (Brad Renfro) and their cousin Joey (Giovanni Ribisi). They all grew up vaguely understanding the fact that their fathers were key figures in the Philadelphia mob, but when Joey has to take the reins of the family when barely out of high school, the friends draw apart.
Tommy, the narrator of the story, goes off to join the Marines during the first Gulf War, and when he realizes that they aren’t going to take Baghdad, he steals a Jeep with the intention of going in and getting Saddam himself.
Tommy would face some serious discipline for this but for the FBI agents (Brian Dennehy and Leo Rossi) who show up and offer him a clean record in exchange for his cooperation in going back home, infiltrating Joey’s business and digging up some dirt on him and whomever he’s doing business with. Tommy reluctantly agrees, but more for his own reasons than theirs: He wants to pull his brother Vincent (who is now working for Joey) out of the business altogether, and maybe even Joey as well.
The key to the picture is this family triangle, and through flashbacks we get a sense of the early bond they formed and how life drove them apart. But that’s all we get, a sense, and the film is subtle to the point of being nearly silent on what drives these characters the rest of the time.
Throughout the film, Tommy seems to be on auto-pilot; he does what he has to in order to fulfill the role of the conscience-stricken brother, but there’s no insight or reflection that gives him any depth. James Marsden is fine in the role, but the script calls for him to do so little that, as the protagonist, it feels like he’s merely a device through which the other two characters are revealed.
Renfro as Vincent, Tommy’s mentally challenged brother who wants to stay in the family because it’s all he knows how to do, has the most-developed role and is also the best actor in the film, shining in a few scenes of sincere vulnerability. The fact that I can tell you why he does what he does makes him stand out from the others. Moreover, Renfro brings a nuanced gravity to the role when, because Vincent is a bit slow, it would be easy to just play him as a vulnerable autistic kid.
Ribisi plays the inexplicable role of Joey, who talks the talk of a mob boss and wants to walk the walk, as well, if not for the fact that he doesn’t really know what to do. The main storyline of the film concerns his trying to become partners with Reggio, the leader of a rival family, but later on, he decides he wants Reggio out of the way instead.
I don’t know what to make of Joey. He might be psychologically immature, pathologically evil or just plain power-hungry. In a scene that feels more gratuitous than it should, Joey shoots and kills one of Reggio’s henchmen just because he was cracking jokes with Vincent.
Does this mean Joey is a truly disturbed man who has bought too much into the world of the mob? Or could it mean he simply hasn’t grown up enough to know the difference between right and wrong? The movie doesn’t say, and without insight into as to what drives Joey to run things the way he does, we don’t know whether to pity him or be disgusted by him.
There are other noteworthy things to describe about the movie. The story is effectively paced, which creates a feeling of tension and unease which culminates in a finale full of deceptions and double-crosses, though perhaps the climax is a bit more spectacular than necessary. Ultimately, the film seems to be about how little trust there is in the world of the mob, and the amount of backstabbing and betrayal in the film conveys the idea forcefully. But the characters don’t have enough depth for their betrayals to have any emotional weight. We are led to care about the characters to an extent, but not to sympathize with them, and as a result, ’10th and Wolf’ is a solid piece of filmmaking but a wanting piece of storytelling.