The following is a review of Wounds — Directed by Babak Anvari.
A couple of years ago, Babak Anvari’s underseen and underappreciated Persian-language horror film — and directorial feature film debut — Under the Shadow was rightfully selected to compete for the foreign-language film award at the Oscars as the British entry. Anvari’s debut was a great surprise and a film that I have recommended to many people over the years. Even though poor word of mouth preceded its release on Netflix, I was still excited to see his second effort as a director of feature-length films. Unfortunately, Wounds, his first English-language feature film, is a messy, dreadful, and disappointing sophomore film.
Written and directed by Babak Anvari, Wounds is a horror film that follows the experiences of Will (played by Armie Hammer), a bartender from New Orleans. Though Will has a girlfriend (played by Dakota Johnson), the barkeep often flirts with other women while working, including Alicia (played by Zazie Beetz), who is already spoken for. Jovial and flirty but deceitful, Will is a popular figure at the bar, but when he decides to serve teens, his world starts to unravel. One of the underage drinkers left their yellow smartphone behind, and Will swiftly decides to take it home with him. Soon the phone starts to display messages and images that are so disturbing that they take over Will’s life and, slowly but surely, make him go mad.
With his second feature film, Babak Anvari immediately swings for the fences. Anvari opens the film by using a quote from the oft-cited Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness. One of the best films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and one of the best films of the year, James Gray’s Ad Astra, were both based on or inspired by Conrad’s novella. The quote refers to an influenced hollowed-out character. Wounds‘ main character is, perhaps, a hollow individual that is manipulated by some unknown force, but Anvari’s use of the Heart of Darkness quote is at best underexplained and at worst inexplicable and pretentious window-dressing.
Wounds is not the rich horror film that the opening quote might lead you to believe. Actually, it’s a tired retread of a horror movie concept used in horror films like The Ring and One Missed Call. Save for the atmosphere created by the presence of many creepy-crawlies, Wounds, as a standard horror film, isn’t much to write home about. Anvari’s film doesn’t use the film’s location to its advantage, even though New Orleans is an interesting city to set a horror film in. I mentioned how the presence of the creepy-crawlies was effective, but I do have a caveat to attach to that statement. I don’t think Anvari’s film does enough to explain their presence nor, frankly, to explain anything that happens in the film whatsoever. A ritual is mentioned, and there are secret texts in the background of images on the smartphone, but that is about as much explanation as you get here. I don’t think the film is scary. Sometimes it is almost unintentionally funny, when we see Will squirm on the pavement or when the phone turns into a super-sized cockroach, but I don’t think Anvari managed to tap into something terrifying. The dialogue is awkward and the characters are thinly written. Furthermore, the ending is frustratingly anticlimactic and makes the film itself seem almost like a waste of time.
I think what actually does work about the film is Will’s deteriorating relationships with Dakota Johnson and Zazie Beetz’s characters. Dakota Johnson isn’t given much to work with here and neither is Zazie Beetz, but their presence helps the film significantly and I actually thought Beetz made the most out of her character. Armie Hammer should be commended for going for broke here, and Hammer certainly is convincing as Will.
Even though the cast is fairly star-studded, Wounds seems to me like a step backward for Anvari. The performers can only do so much when the film around them feels as ineffective, incomplete, and vapid as Wounds does. I hope that this incomplete and severely disappointing sophomore film is not indicative of Babak Anvari’s career trajectory as a filmmaker. I think this is a serious misstep for a very talented filmmaker who I desperately want to see make a triumphant return with a film that is as brilliant and promising as I thought his first film was. It pains me to have to say that Babak Anvari’s Wounds represents a disappointingly severe sophomore slump for a promising filmmaker, as it might be one of the worst new films that I’ve seen this year.
3 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.