I quite admired Thunder Road, the debut from writer/director Jim Cummings. It was confident and it was unique, which is all you can really ask from a debut. Cummings reminded me a bit of Jody Hill with his dark comedies revolving around men suffering from a fracturing ego. Watching it, you got the quick sense this was a guy to keep an eye on. His latest film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, rewards that promise with Cummings taking a step forward in near every aspect. Across the board, Cummings shows significant growth as a filmmaker and storyteller.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow follows John Marshall (Jim Cummings), an officer in the small ski-resort town of Snow Hollow, Utah where a serial killer is striking on each full moon. As people in the town begin to think it’s a werewolf, Marshall’s personal life begins to unravel as he obsessively tries to figure out who is behind the killings.
This movie is a lot funnier than the plotline would suggest, and I thank it for that. Cummings retains his bleak sense of humor from Thunder Road while also having the movie succeed in its horror and thriller trappings. It’s a commendable balancing act that thrives instead of crumbling under the weight of it all. You’re engrossed in this mystery just as much you’re enjoying watching Cummings engage in Coen-like comic punishment of his lead character. Cummings knows what he’s good at as an actor in playing these guys with a fracture of male ego. The first time you see him, he’s at an AA meeting and begins fantasizing about destroying his ex-wife’s house with a lawnmower. Him saying “I won’t ever say a cross word about her, but she’s a real fucking piece of work.” had me cackling. The disconnect Cummings is able to display in Marshall is always rewarding to watch. Cummings instantly displays how awful his character is while somehow not making him too hateable, allowing you to laugh at him just as much as you cringe at his actions. Cummings as an actor feels made to have made a guest appearance in an episode of Eastbound and Down, which is another way of saying I simply like watching him act and he cracks me up. Riki Lindhome does a lot with a little here, and the film is also a fine goodbye to the legend Robert Forster, this being his last appearance in a film before he passed on.
I remember reading in an interview when Cummings was beginning the film, he described it as “Zodiac but with a werewolf.” It’s an apt description. Cummings is clearly aesthetically inspired by Fincher’s masterpiece, but even more so is really good at recreating the look and feel of that film without sacrificing any of his own voice. The sequence where Marshall is reading through books on werewolves and taxidermy mirrors the sequence in Zodiac where Robert Graysmith is going through the Vallejo files. Zodiac is one of my favorite films of all time, so of course I’m a sucker for anything that takes after it, and an even bigger sucker for films that do a great job of it like Cummings does with Snow Hollow.
The cinematography from Natalie Kingston shows she’s a DP to keep an eye on. She retains this slightly heightened sense of reality in her night lighting that makes you start to believe that a werewolf might actually be the culprit. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean. Cummings is more adventurous in his shots and setups, employing some subtle one-takes and overall not letting scenes slip into simple coverage. You get the feeling each camera movement has purpose, and Cummings and Kingston do a great job of keeping things fresh and inventive in each sequence.
I’m just glad Cummings is as good as I hoped he could be. It’s always great buying stock in a filmmaker and being right about it. Cummings wears his influences on his sleeve – Fargo and Zodiac here – without ever feeling like a lifeless imitation and somehow makes those inspirations his own voice. I’m always glad when good movies are made in my state of Utah as well. The Wolf of Snow Hollow will definitely be among my favorites of the year, and I look forward to whatever Cummings does next.