“Wounds”: Film Review (Sundance 2019)

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Armie Hammer stars as a NOLA bartender who opens a portal inviting demons into his world in this spooky, silly body-horror flick by British-Iranian director Babak Anvari.

In a squalid corner of Bourbon Street, there are bugs on the bottles of alcohol, underage kids sidling up for some drinks, nude women playing pool, macho-men smashing glasses, and at the center of this maelstrom is bartender Will (Armie Hammer) pouring shots and flirting with his crush, Alicia (Zazie Beetz) in front of her latest boyfriend (Karl Glusman), and without his live-in girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson) getting suspicious. What might sound like the set up to a laugh-out-loud play for any major studio comedy director is actually a spooky cocktail that is just right for a psychological breakdown, complete with a body-horror chaser, to British-Iranian director Babak Anvari whose previous work, 2016’s Under the Shadow, was selected as the British entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards (it was not nominated).

One evening, a student leaves his cell phone at the bar which Will takes home to figure out how to give it back to its owner… but in the late hours, the phone starts starts receiving texts about a something in a tunnel and some cursed book. Of course Hammer’s character begins to read the texts and respond and in the morning, there’s a photo of a bloody pile of teeth… now if Wounds were a normal horror film, Will would be the moron who eventually dies off-screen. But of course, Anvari, whose 2016 debut was a retro spook story set in ’80s Tehran, doesn’t do or understand normal. Will tells Carrie (whom Johnson plays with such boredom and a monotone attitude – she is possibly an on-screen human representation of the noise you hear when nails meet a chalkboard) “you let your man handle this,” with much swagger and machoism but then gets an unwelcome mental image of her severed head.

Anvari’s second feature isn’t as coherent as his first which melded the paranormal with political themes. Instead on his second feature, Anvari has set out to make a mood piece that succeeds in scaring the audience senseless. Literally. Adapted from Nathan Ballingrud’s novella The Visible Truth, Anvari unpacks images and shots of flying cockroaches, figures and shadows walking in front of the cinema, heads that bubble, tiny hands crawling out of skulls – exactly all the crazy things Will attempts to tell the police. And Hammer, as Will, is his own special effect. Hollywood has never seemed to know what to do with Hammer, with his strong, tall and winning presence, but Anvari plays to Hammer’s strength and charisma casting him in a juicy role that lets the actor stretch his acting muscle.

Audiences familiar with Ballingrud’s story will be better equipped than those unfamiliar with his work to make some sort of sense of all the images, plot twists and characters met throughout the film, especially the more arcane mumbo-jumbo elements (which include an ancient, multivolume tome on gnostic rituals, human sacrifices and the power of flesh wounds to transcend physical boundaries… and a mesmeric web page of a never-ending tunnel). And Anvari’s challenge was to take all these elements and make a propulsive, engaging and often wittingly funny film about a character who would ordinarily exist in the margins of a more taut script.

What works for Anvari is the technical aspects of the film – his ability to up the tension and suspense with a continuous bone-rattling sound mix that resembles anything and everything from a beetle skittering across a microphone to someone moving furniture as well as creating dark visuals that are both creepy and dazzling to look at. And Anvari’s greatest asset is Hammer who gamely loses himself in the role to explore the gnawing sense of inadequacy eating away at Will and steadily filling him with rage. Beetz and Johnson’s characters are not give much substance; Beetz brings a more alive, sexy presence that draws Will and keeps him at arm’s length while Johnson delivers a flat and vacant performance although her character is Will’s driving force through the film and the one that discovers this gnostic ritual taking place.

A branch of the Gnostics diverged into the now extinct Persian religion Manichaeism, which could be how Anvari was inspired to adapt this tale. Whatever the case, Wounds bears little respect for the flesh unlike the teachings that the film seems to be based on. When a body is tunneled into and abused, it seems to open a vent right into the soul; the trouble for Will and company is that at their core, they’re full of sin – lust, violence and rage. Yet, as for Anvari, he’s happy to watch and let these vile volcanoes rumble and explode.

JAKKAWI: B-

“Wounds” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight Category. At press time, the film had a March 29, 2019 release date by United Artists Releasing but was pulled from the schedule for a future date TBD.

Director: Babak Anvari
Writer: Babak Anvari, based on the novella "The Visible Truth" by Nathan Ballingrud
Music by:
Cinematography: Kit Fraser
Production: Two & Two Pictures, AZA Films
With: Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, Zazie Beetz, Karl Glusman, Brad William Henke

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