Disturbing and mysterious things begin to happen to a bartender in New Orleans after he picks up a phone left behind at his bar.
A great big proclamation of “WTF?” can be taken in two ways – when discussing your thoughts on a newly-screened film.
1.) The filmmakers have failed in every single way, and you can do nothing but recommend they pursue some other passion. Brutal? Yes.
2.) You walked out of the theatre after a somewhat exhausting movie experience, wondering what in the name of all that’s holy, you just witnessed. In a good way, of course.
Babak Anvari’s latest film is Wounds (holding its Los Angeles Premiere at this year’s Screamfest in Hollywood). I reviewed his previous (and fantastic) feature film, Under the Shadow (full review here) and I can say with no hesitation, that Wounds falls squarely (and heavily) into category 2.
Will (Oscar-nominee Armie Hammer) and his girlfriend Carrie (50 Shades of Grey’s Dakota Johnson) are a couple going through life (and the motions) in their New Orleans neighborhood. Things seem pretty good (sometimes a bit strained) in their relationship. Will is a bartender, and Carrie goes to school. But whatever stresses they have in their lives are exponentially increased when a customer at Will’s bar leaves behind her cell phone. Will becomes obsessed with what he finds in the phone (strange messages, photos) and things quickly go downhill for Will, Carrie and those around them – in a supernatural and terrifying way.
Or as Anvari described on the Screamfest black carpet at the film’s screening, “Almost like a relationship drama that turns into a nightmare. A Cronenbergian, Lovecraftian nightmare.” Anvari revealed that Cronenberg has long been an influence on his work.
As I’ve said time and time again, performance is a big key to the success of a film – particularly in the horror genre. Reactions have to be authentic for the audience to buy in to the wacky and terrifying goings-on within the horror story.
I loved the work (and those impressive reactions of “WTF”) from every actor in this film. Of note (in the ensemble) were the performances of Brad William Henke as barfly Eric and Zazie Beetz as Will’s friend Alicia.
There’s an organic feel to Henke’s Eric. He’s the sort of guy we might all know – partying too hard on his down days. And when he’s injured in a barfight, you feel for the guy. And as the film progresses, your sympathy for Eric only increases. A credit to Henke.
And Beetz is amazing as Alicia. There’s limited screen-time for her, but like Henke, she also creates a character you’ll root for, although you know very little about the character’s specific history. The old saying goes, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” And Beetz makes a lasting impression as Alicia – making her way through the last remnants of Alicia’s interest in Will, finding new love and moving away from Will’s bad influence on her life. I’d certainly like to know more about Alicia – which means Beetz did her job, and she did it well.
RELATED ARTICLE: UNDER THE SHADOW (2016) REVIEW
And of course mention must be made of Armie Hammer’s awesome performance as a sad, approaching middle-age guy who really hasn’t done a lot with his life. It seems that Will is prime for exploitation by the dangerous forces present in the film, and Hammer makes him sympathetic enough for us to follow, but a character whose choices are often questionable. In other words, Will is layered as a character, and Hammer’s up to the challenge.
His call to Alicia – late in the film – is an acting highlight for Hammer. It’s beautifully written (showcasing the character’s obvious and painful cluelessness), but it’s Hammer’s line delivery which brings home this very sad and pathetic moment for Will. Going through my head this moment, “This poor guy.”
Dakota Johnson also doesn’t have a ton of screen time as Will’s put-upon girlfriend. That’s not to say that she doesn’t offer up a genuine performance. Her dreamy line deliveries (at certain points of the film) will echo in the pit of your stomach – notably when Will rushes home to reply to a cryptic photo and message from Carrie. Johnson also gets a couple of real dialogue zingers, in the form of a late-in-the-film conversation at the dining table with Will. Her matter-of-fact reply to one of Will’s suggestions is unexpected and pure gold. And were I so inclined, I’d put her off-hand remark about the outside/inside of Will on repeat. Deliciously cold and completely menacing.
When I asked Anvari about getting such recognizable names as Hammer and Johnson for the film, he replied, “I met Armie after I wrote the script. Just after Call Me By Your Name had come out. I met him and said, ‘I have this script.’ So I sent him the script. I think 48 hours later he emailed me saying, ‘Dude, you’re fucked in the head. I’m in.’”
Wounds won’t be for everyone. I’m no expert on H.P. Lovecraft and all of his cosmic craziness, but I know enough that the mystery and oddities present in Wounds, are definitely from the Lovecraft bag of tricks. It’s a slow burn, and even at the film’s end, not all will be answered. Of course, most of the situations and revelations you’ll experience can be chalked up to “in these kinds of universes, what you see (or think you see) is never meant to be fully explained”.
I’ve always appreciated a film which gets the “dread” just right. Again, the film takes its time, but with each passing moment, your unease will continue to grow and expand, until the film’s final moments open your eyes wide to the culmination of that dread. The final few shots of Wounds are simply nightmare-inducing, with a shot I don’t believe I’ve seen before. Pay close attention to what’s transpiring in the background of this final shot, and your bad dream needs will certainly be fulfilled.
And believe it or not, in the midst of all of this horror and dread, there is some sharp humor (black as hell) present. It all comes from the reality of the characters and situation, but that never keeps it from being perfectly conceived and executed. Of note is Will’s visit to a couple of cop buddies to file a report about the phone and the fact that he believes he’s being followed. When Will’s asked if he got the license plate number of the car in question, he says, “Yes.” The cop asks what it is and Will replies, following a long pause, “6 something”. Perfect.
And based on Anvari’s mention of Cronenberg, you can expect a heaping helping of grotesque body horror in Wounds (and the brilliantly gross makeup effects to expertly pull it all off).
The film held its US premiere earlier this year, at Sundance. It is based on the novella The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud.
Wounds is a co-production of Hulu and Annapurna, and will be available for rent/purchase on Hulu beginning October 18th, 2019. So don’t delay, open up those pulsating and mysterious wounds and hop on into this weird-o-rama descent into cinema madness.
Just be prepared – as the end credits begin to roll – to throw up your hands with a great big “WTF?”