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What do we make of the crime thriller-comedy “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” the follow-up to writer-director-star Jim Cummings’ fearless 2018 debut, the crime drama-comedy “Thunder Road”? In something of a spiritual sequel, the critical favorite plants himself in a curiously similar role at the center of a much different movie.
Both “Thunder Road’s” Jim Arnaud and “Wolf’s” John Marshall are twitchy, insecure lawmen, divorcing or divorced from their wives and managing awkward relationships with their daughters, neither of whom are ever all that happy to see Dad. “Stressed out” doesn’t begin to describe Cummings’ characters.
Unlike “Thunder Road,” where domestic and emotional issues cause problems at work, “Wolf” forefronts the procedural nature of law enforcement as Marshall and the rest of the Snow Hollow Sheriff’s Department investigate a string of grisly murders that might be the work of a serial killer or a large wolf or … a werewolf. Bodies accumulate in the rural Utah ski community and tensions rise — after all, carnage is bad for tourism and there’s a monster on the loose.
“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a pleasingly quirky outing that has fun with the mythologies of both monsters and men. The tightly wound Marshall, heir apparent to his ailing sheriff father (a fine Robert Forster in his last role), must lead the department while battling his own inner demons, and things do not go well.
For starters, Marshall is a recovering alcoholic with anger issues. Then his ex-wife drops off their rebellious daughter, Jenna (Chloe East), for a stay prior to the girl leaving for college. As Marshall intensifies his hunt for a human killer, mounting evidence points to something else, and the only thing keeping him on track is the extreme competence and demeanor of Officer Julie Robson, the real grit and glue of the SHSD.
As Julie, Riki Lindhome (“Garfunkel and Oates,” “Knives Out”) brandishes an arsenal of side eyes, cocked brows and withering glances, clearly developed over years of suffering foolish men. She provides a refreshing counterweight to the progressively unhinged Marshall that keeps both that character and the film on track.
In both of his films, the free fall of Cummings’ characters nicely captures a sense of the diminishment of the white American male in the 21st century. But whereas in “Thunder Road” (streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy), Cummings’ portrayal of a cop unraveling under pressure seemed fresh and brash, here at times it feels repetitive, like a singer belting out the same song in a different key. Working with a 10-times-bigger budget, Cummings the director acquits himself well melding elements of humor and horror but pens himself in somewhat as a performer.
Cummings claims the Coen brothers and David Fincher as influences, and there are certainly echoes of “Blood Simple,” “Seven” and “Zodiac” here, but the filmmaker he most brings to mind is Hal Hartley: the deadpan delivery punctuated by bursts of expressionism, eccentric characters populating naturalistic environments and an idiosyncratic mix of art-house and genre sensibilities.
“Thunder Road” and “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” indicate a promising director still charting a path, so it will be most interesting to see what Cummings’ next project, “The Beta Test,” delivers. Reportedly about the misadventures of a Hollywood agent, it will be an opportunity for the filmmaker — and the actor — to truly show what he’s got.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.