In the most powerful scene in “Wolf,” a haunting psychological thriller, Jacob (George MacKay) kneels before a caged wild animal. Like the creature, Jacob feels trapped: He believes he is a wolf born as a human.
His body isn’t his only cage. When the story begins, Jacob is committed to a conversion clinic run by a man called the Zookeeper (Paddy Considine). The institute’s young patients — who identify variously, including as a panda, squirrel and spider — endure therapies designed to tame and civilize them. It is no coincidence, however, that it is the overseers who come off as the savage brutes: To convince one resident that she is a girl, not a parrot, the Zookeeper dangles her out of a window and challenges her to fly.
At first, Jacob is a vacant and uncomplaining patient. But some nights, he lets the wolf inside take over, his deltoids undulating as he prowls on all fours. He finds a companion in Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a troubled, longtime resident of the center who bonds with Jacob on an animal level.
Written and directed by Nathalie Biancheri, the movie maintains a mostly even tone. Despite dashes of uncanny humor, Biancheri directs with remove. The downside to this approach is that certain sequences tend to feel like acting exercises, and though MacKay and Depp perform with devoted bodily fervor, it’s hard to connect to their characters.
Still, Biancheri’s imagery is consistently evocative, and her interest in how captivity affects dignity at times recalls the work of Yorgos Lanthimos. Only near the end will the story really give you pause, when it verges on explaining away species dysphoria as a trauma response. “Wolf” may lead with an open curiosity, but in tackling big ideas about identity, openness is not always enough.