He's a handsome fellow who can play all sorts when given half a chance, but Michael Shannon's alarming bone structure and "you-talkin'-to-me?" eyes tend to trap him in many Frankenstein-adjacent roles. Which is why you might be forgiven for spending much of Wolves, a somber family drama with a fun sports movie neatly tucked inside, waiting for Shannon to explode. And he is a familiar coiled spring as Billy, the self-immolating father of a promising high-school basketball star. In fact, without Shannon, it's unclear that writer-director Bart Freundlich would have gotten a release for this modestly pleasing, unsurprising indie about a family undone by anger issues.
Shannon also knows how not to suck up all the air in an ensemble piece though. Billy's fuse blows now and again, but mostly this unmotivated college professor with ballooning sidelines in booze and gambling mopes around, a hapless hostage to his destructive habits. He's all too easily manipulated by muscled mob-ish creditors who crawl out of the woodwork at intervals to add a dab of menace. Freundlich's focus rests less on Billy than on the damage his arbitrary rages inflict on his son, Anthony (played with fine restraint by American Crime's Taylor John Smith), a high-school basketball star and all-round sweet fellow in desperate need of better role models. Anthony has a smart, loyal girl friend played by Zazie Beetz, and can I just applaud the fact that nothing whatever is made of the fact that he's white and she's African-American? But his equally attentive, hard-working mother (Carla Gugino) is desperately trying to hold the fort, putting out fires and trying to retrieve the irretrievable when she should be changing the game for everyone's sake. Chris Bauer is very good as the family friend and enabler.
You know the drill, and I wish I had a dollar for all the co-dependence family sagas I've sat through. No new ground is broken here in that regard, but what Wolves does well is to draw out, with necessary repetition, the degree to which most of us would rather dig ourselves over and over into the pain and the massaging stories we tell ourselves, rather than risk the change that might liberate us and those we love. Thus does Billy run himself deeper and more dangerously into risk, while his wife compulsively trots her bright and positive mantras. As for Anthony, even when a possible scholarship to Cornell ups the stakes, for a while he sticks with his groove as the good boy who never stops smiling and acquiescing to the bully who's ruining his life.
Wolves, too, doesn't stray far from the prescribed build toward the transfiguring moment. But it's a stretched-out doozie of a cathartic sequence on the basketball court, with Samuel Ray Gates especially fine as the black former sports star who releases Anthony's buried anger and shows him how to use it without damage to himself or others. Except for one other, of course, and to this small but richly specific film's credit, he is discharged with equal parts empathy and relief.