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  • The Aesthetics of Stagnation:Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf and the Separated Society
  • Sean O'Brien (bio)

Separated from his product, man himself produces all the details of his world with ever increasing power, and thus finds himself ever more separated from his world. The more his life is now his product, the more he is separated from his life.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

The development of large-scale industry expresses itself, finally, in the extrusion of workers from the factory—deindustrialisation. Beyond the factory gates, workers find themselves wandering in an immense infrastructure, that of modern life, which reflects back to them not their growing power, but rather, their impotence. They see not a world of their making, but rather a runaway world, a world beyond their control, perhaps beyond anyone's control.

—Endnotes, "A History of Separation"

[End Page 208]

Ashley McKenzie's bleak and beautiful film Werewolf (2016) would appear to tell a story about opioid addiction.1 The film's protagonists, Vanessa (Bhreagh MacNeil) and Blaise (Andrew Gillis), are both recovering addicts on a methadone treatment program, frequenting pharmacies for their medicine and conversing with government bureaucrats and clinic doctors about their progress and mental health. And yet McKenzie's feature debut avoids the tragic excess of conventional junkie movies. There are no thrilling scenes of the characters getting high, stealing, or performing sex work, as one might typically expect to find in a film about drug addiction. As McKenzie says in an interview, "I talked to different people in the methadone program, but I'm not trying to make some sort of exposé."2 In fact, Werewolf is hardly a story at all, at least not in the generic sense of a conventionally defined narrative arc. And while the departure from linear narrative has long been an avant-garde mainstay, the film's recursive structure and oblique close-ups suggest a suffocating constriction instead of some sense of freedom from the dictates of a commercial film industry that we might associate with earlier avant-garde cinema such as the French nouvelle vague. This is because Werewolf, as I hope to show, is first and foremost a cinematic meditation on precarity as a social experience of economic stagnation, one that attends to the gendered forms that precarity assumes in an era of deindustrialization.

Werewolf dwells in the everyday reality of recovery and its banal routines, but the opioid epidemic—which has spread throughout both rural and deindustrialized regions across North America—appears in the film not as the primary cause of the characters' suffering but instead as a tragic symptom of their precarity. Viewers might be forgiven for not recognizing the film's setting in present-day Cape Breton, an island in the Atlantic Canadian province of Nova Scotia that was once a hub of industrial activity. While Cape Breton Island has come to be known for its natural beauty through the promotional work of its tourism industry in an attempt to fill the considerable gap left by the flight of manufacture and extractive trades, Werewolf captures the hardscrabble existence of life in the postindustrial region in its depiction of two homeless addicts scraping by with a rusty lawn mower in the former mining town of New Waterford. United in their isolation, Blaise and Nessa (as she's known) seem to have little left to do but wander the blasted waste-lands of capitalist ruin, mowing lawns and killing time between methadone doses, until the tensions of the couple form push them apart. Drawing out the consequences of economic stagnation for the aesthetics of cinematic realism, this essay explores the [End Page 209] relationships between precarity and deindustrialization in McKenzie's film through a Marxian account of the figure of separation.

In the conclusion to Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson writes that "Marx's fundamental figure for social development and dynamics (a figure that runs through the Grundrisse, connecting the 1844 manuscripts in an unbroken line to Capital itself) . . . is the fundamental notion of separation (as when Marx describes the production of the proletariat in terms of their separation from the means of production—i.e., enclosure, the exclusion of...


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