“…it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception…and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”
When a film opens up with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic, Heart of Darkness, it’s reasonable to expect the film to deliver. Despite an interesting not too unique premise, Babek Anvari‘s sophomore effort does not excel much further than being an extended not as tightly paced Black Mirror episode. While those expecting Wounds to be a straight horror film, will be disappointed, I do think that it adequately serves as an effective Lovecraftian psychological thriller. While I didn’t love Anvari’s directorial debut, Under the Shadow (2016), I did find it to have quite a powerful subtext about families living in war torn zones. When I think about it, Wounds is quite literally an adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s, “The Hollow Men“, with an added Japanese horror element. I personally think that this diegetic quote would have worked much better as a captivating opener and/or non-spoiler synopsis: “There was a ritual. We opened a portal, and something came through. You called it into your home“.
Armie Hammer (The Social Network, The Lone Ranger, The Man from UNCLE, Sorry to Bother You) plays Will, a loner college dropout turned cynical bartender, who serves beers to underage kids and complains about their addiction to smartphones. He spends his days wallowing away with life playing Bulletstorm, arguing with his grad student girlfriend (Dakota Johnson), lusting for his taken crush (Zazie Beetz), and following his life motto: “Don’t get wasted. Just do what I do and maintain the buzz. It’s like surfing…only more fun“. On what he assumes to be just another casual late night bar shift, the bartender ends up in possession of some kid’s cell phone in the aftermath of a drunken fight in which one of the bar’s usuals leaves with his cheek completely sliced open. Serving as a prelude of more bloodshed to come, the night’s events begin a chain reaction of violent horrific images which seemingly spawn from the aforementioned cellphone. Like the roaches that infest every orifice of the bar, swarms of horror and suspense seep from the lit screens of phones and laptops into the eyes and ears of its unsuspecting victims.
2019 has already been subjected to two other cell phone horror films, A.M.I. (Rusty Nixon) and the recently released, Countdown (Justin Dec). Most of you should be familiar with, by notoriety or meme, 2018’s Truth or Dare (Jeff Wadlow) and while I have only seen two of the three, I do believe that Wounds manages to capture the best atmosphere and eerie tone of them. Supernatural manipulation via technology is not a new concept, and can be seen from the first mainstream installment of the Unfriended series, five years ago, or even the 2012 YouTube aimed, Smiley (Michael J. Gallagher), but while Wounds is British-Iranian Babek Anvari’s western debut, his film owes much more to the cinema of the east, specifically Japan. Wounds plays more to the advantages of a primordial whisper that ever so gently creeps into your life, infected and changing you from your core, day by day. In his pitch to convince me into watching Wounds, my trusted friend, Chris (@DJ_Keyser), mentioned it being akin to J-Horror. Viewing from this perspective may change your opinions or at least hopefully ease the amount of hate that this film is getting. The original genre establishing classic (that I have somehow yet to see), is none other than 1998’s Ringu (Hideo Nakata). For good measure, one could throw in 2003’s One Missed Call (Takashi Miike) as well. Like Miike’s film, Wounds functions off of the central cellular device as the culprit and catalyst of misfortune. Under the Shadow disguised the psychological trauma of a warring country and female struggles within a patriarchal society, through a massive missile dud. With his notion of otherworldly horrors exuding themselves from seemingly harmless material objects, Anvari deftly intertwines a sense of real world dread and beckon from Neitzche’s starring abyss. Serving as metaphorical plot devices, just as well as a portal that allows the dark recesses of the easily afflicted mind to wander in. I adamantly believe that Anvari is deeply influenced by Nakata’s artistic styles, particularly in the correlation between Ringu and Wounds, and Dark Water (2002) with Under the Shadow. Wounds may not ever be as iconic as Ringu or effective as any of the aforementioned J-Horror staples, but I think it’s not getting the attempted credit it deserves. There are a handful of unsettling moments, and just like with his previous film, Anvari does succeed in building a sense of close quarters tension and unease.
An excerpt from my Under the Shadow review, “There is a lot to admire with how Anvari manages to keep a certain level of unease and crawling suspense in an enclosed apartment. It is what we don’t see that manifests as the true horror. I think his skill as a writer outweighs his actual direction, even though some of the dialogue was very ordinary. Don’t expect to have your mind blown by and mass CGI or actual monsters and such, as this is a short and very slow burn drama set in a very conflicted period. The scares and the fear are amplified by the setting around the film and how war, religious pressures, marriage, and parenthood all factor info making the plot richer in unspoken exposition” (https://boxd.it/CTD4N). Apart from admirably adhering to “The Hollow Men“, I think that Wounds succeeds in capturing the sense of captivating dread and intrigue when stumbling upon a gruesome image online. I want to give another shout out to Chris for this sentiment. Do you recall the first time you stumbled upon something you shouldn’t have seen? What was it? Was it your father’s Playboy magazine, your uncle’s secret liqueur stash, a discarded pornographic DVD case behind the doughnut store, or perhaps any assortment of those decapitation videos online? I recall my incidents quite vividly, just as I can remember the sudden rush of adrenaline and goosebumps that run down your spine and chill every hair on your forearm. It’s that very intimate psychological spike that you’re viewing something you know is not meant for you, but that you just can’t quite look away or turn off. It’s not that you condone it, but it’s quite possibly the best situational example of curiosity killing the cat. You just have to take a peek and, once you do, it’s forever ingrained in your mind. There’s one specific scene that perfectly captures this feeling, and it also exhibits one of too few moments of body horror. That same lingering and infectious curiosity is what I think Anvari truly succeeds in, and while I can’t say I loved either of his two films, I do see merit and a continued interest in his style. While it feels like the film was certainly rushed, and there is quite a lot of unresolved time spent on a love interest university subplots, when it hits, it brings the tingling creeps. Had Anvari strictly focused between Hammer and Johnson’s characters, I think it would have made for a far more compelling thriller. But just as with his previous film, Anvari works better on paper than within his still in progress direction, as Wounds is filled with rich subtext.
Wounds weaves both T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men and Conrad’s aforementioned, Heart of Darkness, into its narrative. Like the film, Eliot’s poem starts with a reference to Heart of Darkness. Furthermore, Will’s girlfriend, Alicia (Johnson), is writing her dissertation on The Hollow Men. While the script does seem rather stilted, I sincerely think that Hammer and Johnson do what they can with the material provided. The same cannot be said for a completely wasted Zazie Beetz (Atlanta, Deadpool 2) and Karl Glusman (Love, Nocturnal Animals). It’s clear that Anvari had a message to state, but it’s not evident what his primary concern or goal in doing so is. From my initial viewing, I took away two perspectives, the first being that most men are hollow in their ambition and lives, and the second being how technology has evolved from a symbiotic relationship to a domineering control over its users. Just as in Eliot’s poem, unable to maintain an intellectual discourse with his girlfriend, unsuccessfully attempting to gain the affection of an old fling, and incapable of serving a higher purpose beyond just going from home to work to home, Will represents the hollow man. “Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless“. He talks but doesn’t say anything, he’s easily offended, has a loose temper, a drinking problem, and has absolutely zero goals and ambitions in life. Barring alcoholism, for the most part, these are all accusations that revolve around many who cling to their cellphones everyday all day. A seemingly harmless device that is incapable if anything without physical interaction, has somehow reversed roles into forcing us to be incapable of living without it. Applied directly to Will, the accused hollow man, who is “Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion“, he is a non-person. Vis-a-vis that stanza paints a portrait of our human appearance sitting motionless before a blue screen. Will is an individual who for his life’s sake will never serve any truly meaningful purpose, very much like the lost wandering souls between realms, of Dante’s Inferno. While I feel that Anvari could have given more depth and screen time to Johnson and Beetz, his central focus and deconstruction of Hammer’s Will, literally and figuratively, does allow the film to maintain its overarching tension. Without spoiling any specific details, I will simply restate that Will sees something he shouldn’t have, and in direct causation, opens his eyes to things no person should experience. In continuation with Wounds correlation and indebtedness to “The Hollow Men“, I have picked out certain stanzas. “Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom remember us—if at all—not as lost volent souls, but only as the hollow men the stuffed men“. Will’s eyes who have crossed upon a dimension possibly beyond life and death, an entity, or perhaps even a God, begs to be remembered not for his callous flaws, but for the simple trying man that he thought to be. “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams in death’s dream kingdom these do not appear: There, the eyes are sunlight on a broken column there, is a tree swinging and voices are in the wind’s singing more distant and more solemn than a fading star“. In his own abyss, the eyes of his God are not present to guide or pity him, while in the distance, he can hear the lively echoes of reality departing from him, as he, or the metaphorical technologically obsessed viewer, sinks further and further. “Between the idea and the reality between the motion and the act falls the Shadow“. Rather fitting of Anvari’s directorial debut, “the Shadow” emphasises the looming incertitude and and suppression of physical and mental selves, when faced with complete and utter fear of the unknown. For Will, this becomes present in multiple forms, but perhaps none more evident than his hollow life. Similar to his debut, Anvari once again disguises his true intentions under the guise of a supernatural thriller. I do, for the most part, recommend giving Wounds a chance, and I’ll stand by my rather lightly positive appreciation of Anvari’s observant societal attempt.
My biggest gripe with Wounds, is it’s ending. Quite literally, the final shot. It’s not that I find it to be uncomfortably ambiguous or any sense of existential, but more so that it’s extremely and offensively anticlimactic. Anvari could have easily continued the film for another 30 minutes, capitalising on some large horrific twist or reveal, which had been justly set up. Whether it be that he did not know how to end it, perhaps there were budgetary constraints, or timing deadlines, Wounds, like it’s deeply ingrained literary inspiration, “Ends not with a bang but a whimper“.
B- Review ami B+ black mirror bulletstorm countdown dakota johnson dante dark water hideo nakata jeff wadlow joseph conrad karl glusman love michael j gallagher neitzche nocturnal animals one missed call ringu rusty nixon sorry to bother you takashi miike the hollow men the lone ranger the man from uncle truth or dare ts eliot unfriended wounds zazie beetz
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. I’m typically known for longer write-ups, and my eclectic taste ranging from awards darlings, European filmé, indie spirits, cinematic universes, and most notably 80s cult films. Hope you’ve enjoyed your visit, and remember, watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.