'Wounds': Film Review | Sundance 2019

It's Hammer time in the Big Queasy.

Armie Hammer stars as a New Orleans bartender who opens a portal inviting demons into his world in this second feature from 'Under the Shadow' director Babak Anvari.

Anyone with a cockroach phobia might want to consider this a trigger warning, because Wounds contains a multitude of them. A festering marriage of H.P. Lovecraft and David Cronenberg, the movie tracks the spiraling descent of Armie Hammer's charming but shallow New Orleans bartender Will after he unsuspectingly lets madness into his head, infecting his romantic relationships and friendships while giving him a disturbing view into the empty abyss of his own soul.

Writer-director Babak Anvari, who sparked excitement at Sundance in 2016 with the terrific domestic-possession shocker set in his native Iran, Under the Shadow, is in less distinctive territory with this March release from Annapurna. But even if it's a disappointment on those terms, voracious genre consumers should get off on trying to decipher the densely textured film's murky ambiguities.

Based on the novella The Visible Filth, by dark fantasy writer Nathan Ballingrud, Wounds swiftly sets up Will as an ordinary man who has opted out of any meaningful investment in life, preferring to coast by on his good looks, cocky manner and the enviable way he fills out a T-shirt. Since dropping out of Tulane University, he has found his niche working the night shift at roach-infested neighborhood dive bar Rosie's. Unlike some of his customers, he seldom gets wasted but prefers a steady booze intake throughout the day, to "maintain the buzz."

Will lives with grad student Carrie (Dakota Johnson), but is not too deeply committed to flirt aggressively with Rosie's regular Alicia (Zazie Beetz), ignoring her blossoming relationship with Jeffrey (Karl Glusman).

When oil-rig worker Eric (Brad William Henke) rolls in one night on a rowdy bender, a vicious fight breaks out over the pool table and Eric gets his face slashed open with a broken beer bottle. One of a group of probably underage college students drops a smartphone while fleeing the scene, and Will pockets it, intending to return it to the owner. But later at home alarmed texts start appearing from one of the freaked-out millennials, and gruesome images in the device's photo storage lead Will on a macabre journey into the unknowable, with Carrie getting caught up in it too.

Audiences familiar with Ballingrud's story will be better equipped than the uninitiated to make sense of all this, particularly the more arcane mumbo-jumbo elements. Those include an ancient, multivolume tome on gnostic rituals, human sacrifices and the power of flesh wounds to transcend physical boundaries, not to mention a mesmeric web page of a cavernous tunnel.

The more relatable fear of a cellphone becoming a vessel for evil works better (who hasn't thought of their iPhone as a fast track to demonic possession?), in calls that unleash the ear-splitting howls of an inferno, or others that induce vivid hallucinations as the device appears to melt into an infestation of creepy-crawly bugs. Not recommended while driving.

The gist of it is that basically, Will's mounting terror is rooted in a sudden invasive awareness of who he is, where he's at in his stagnant life and how superficial his connections are to the people around him. Carrie drives that home when she calls him an empty shell: "There's nothing there to satisfy."

Of course, that would be more effective if Johnson didn't deliver such a flat, vacant performance. (Making Carrie a T.S. Eliot scholar follows in the great tradition of Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist in Bond film The World is Not Enough.) Beetz brings a more alive, sexy presence, her character simultaneously drawn to Will while keeping him at arm's length, but neither of the women are given much substance.

This is very much Hammer's film, and he gamely loses himself in the sweaty panic of the role, subverting his golden matinee-idol persona to explore the gnawing sense of inadequacy eating away at Will and steadily filling him with overwhelming rage. He also gets some memorably visceral body-horror moments, notably an itch that turns nasty, directly recalling the armpit orifice of the early Cronenberg entry Rabid.

There's nothing here that comes close to the fascinating cultural specificity, the sobering political perspective or the elevating personal connection of Anvari's first feature, set in the Tehran of his childhood, near the end of the protracted Iran-Iraq War. But the director nonetheless remains a skilled craftsman, subtly tapping into the flavorful history of New Orleans as a hub of dark magic, while wrapping the entire action in a soupy soundscape of ambient dread.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Cast: Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, Zazie Beetz, Karl Glusman, Brad William Henke, Kerry Cahill, Terence Rosemore
Production companies: Two & Two Pictures, AZA Films
Distribution: Annapurna Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Babak Anvari, based on the novella The Visible Truth, by Nathan Ballingrud
Producers: Lucan Toh, Babak Anvari, Christopher Kopp
Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Jillian Longnecker, Andrew Harvey, Brian Pitt
Director of photography: Kit Fraser
Production designer: Chad Keith
Costume designer: Meagan McLaughlin
Editor: Chris Barwell
Casting: Mark Bennett

94 minutes