The trend of horror movies picked up by Netflix and released over the course of “Halloctober” continues with Wounds, directed by Babak Anvari (whose directorial debut, Under the Shadow, is one of my favourite horror films of 2016) and starring a bunch of stars: Armie Hammer (in the leading role), Dakota Johnson, Zazie Beetz and Karl Glusman.
Before we discuss the pros and cons of Wounds, it’s necessary to address the elephant in the room: since it hit Netflix (in Europe) and Hulu (in the States) on October 18th, the vast majority of people who watched this movie truly hated it. Some even consider it the worst horror film of 2019! Wounds premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received mixed reviews from both critics and audience members, but it’s with the worldwide release that hatred really started. While I certainly understand why the movie got such a negative response, I also think it shouldn’t have been released on such a large scale: this is an-A24-kind of film, very different from what casual horror fans and masses want, thus a limited theatrical release followed by a DVD/Blu-Ray release (which would’ve grabbed the attention of Anvari fans and would’ve discouraged casual movie consumers) would’ve been much more appropriate, in my opinion.
This review of Wounds will entirely be spoiler-free (until I’ve given my final grade), but it’ll be followed by a brief ENDING EXPLAINED paragraph: as always, the spoiler-free review is aimed to those of you who haven’t seen the film yet and might want to know what to expect from it; the explanation at the end, instead, is aimed to clarify some doubts many of you seem to have about the point (i.e. the meaning) of this movie.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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WOUNDS – SPOILER-FREE REVIEW
After a bar brawl that sees regular Eric (Brad William Henke) stabbed through the cheek, bartender Will (Armie Hammer) finds a phone left behind by a group of underage costumers: he takes it home and works out how to unlock it. As soon as he does it, he gets some ominous messages from someone called Garrett. However, when he wakes up in the morning and his girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson) sees it, she notices that he’s received a photo of blood and teeth. Despite that, she seems to be thinking Will is cheating on her, since Carrie’s attitude towards him is very wary from the get-go – and it’ll only get worse. In fact, Will seems to be more than keen on one of his regulars, Alicia (played by Zazie Beetz). While tying to figure out what to do with his relationship with Carrie, Will also have to find out the mystery behind the disturbing and creepy visions he’s having.
If you look at Wounds as a straight horror film, your typical thirteen-in-a-dozen possession flick, obviously you’re going to be disappointed by it. The director’s intent with this movie is to delve into the psyche of a guy who’s appears normal on the outside but, like Carrie says, inside he’s “all worms”. Will is a person with no real purpose in life, one who hides his true self (“shallow and hollow”, as director Babak Anvari told Refinery29) behind the façade of a nice and charming bartender. Through the ritual featured in the fictional book The Translation of Wounds (a recurring and mysterious item in Wounds), we follow Will’s slow descent into the rotting of his psyche, which is explored in the film through the falling apart of his relationships and mental sanity.
Whether this message was conveyed well or not it’s another story. In fact, Wounds does a rather poor job at combining its main subtext with the surface-level storyline, which revolves around a gnostic ritual performed by some unknown people and that affects Will’s life.
The main issue with Wounds is that the director’s ambition feels too big for the story he’s trying to tell: there’s so much going in on in this movie that, by the end, nothing is fully developed nor explained in any satisfying way. It certainly doesn’t help that the leads are completely miscast: Armie Hammer (who was phenomenal in Call Me by Your Name) doesn’t deliver his character’s personality, Dakota Johnson (who was great in Suspiria) is very annoying from beginning to end, Zazie Beetz and Karl Glusman (two fantastic actors) have little to work with here. On top of that, for a film that claims to be smart and self-reflective, Wounds heavily relies on silly horror tropes: typical online research scene, visions of bugs that aren’t real (done with poor CG effects), cops not believing the main character, overreliance on a cursed book…
That said, Wounds features elements of quality nonetheless. For instance, the opening sequence that takes place inside the Rosie’s bar (where Will works) is phenomenal: it establishes tension, it’s violent and creepy, it sets up characters’ motivations rather well. The use of subtle and eerie music helps setting up the mood, which stays consistently dreadful and unsettling. While not exceptional, the cinematography is on spot and features such a huge variety of camera movements and angles: Wounds never feels visually tiring, which is why it kept me interested from beginning to end, even though the story itself was quite convoluted. As a horror film, Wounds succeeds at being scary in a couple of instances where the filmmakers made great use of the good old rule “the lesser you show, the better”: by implying certain disturbing sequences, Wounds managed to make your imagination run wild.
Overall, this is a quite disappointing movie that, however, I would never call bad. Even though I personally didn’t like, there are elements of quality to it that are simply undeniable. By the same token, there are aspects that objectively fail or fall flat, whatever the director’s intent was. For me, whenever a horror film tries something new, I can’t really give it a negative grade: I might not have liked Wounds, but I’m still willing to give it another chance in the future to see if there’s more to pick up from it.
WOUNDS – ENDING EXPLAINED [ SPOILERS! ]
If you remember, before the opening scene Wounds starts with this quote from Heart of Darkness, the masterpiece from Joseph Conrad:
“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.”
This sentence pretty much sums up and explains the ending to the movie, if you were confused about it: Will visits Eric, the guy who got disfigured at the beginning of the movie, and, after an ominous exchange between the two men, Will gets close to Eric and squeezes the costumer’s open wound. As a result, the room is invaded by CGI bugs (that look dreadful, to be honest) and, as they cover the camera, we catch a glimpse at something – with only one visible eye – coming out from Eric’s cut and getting into Will’s mouth. Then, the camera comes to black and the movie is over.
Due to the opening quote and the insistence on The Translation of Wounds, my assumption is that Will – which is depicted as a hollow vessel throughout the film – completes the ritual contained in the book and, as a result, allows a sort of demon to come to life and take his body. I feel like this explanation is correct because, at one point in Wounds, Will has a vision of a character telling him:
“There was a ritual. We opened a portal. Something came and possessed us. You called it into your home. Now it sees you are the perfect vessel for more. It is in your bedroom right now staring at you as you sleep”.
To sum it up, this is what the ending means, in a few words: throughout the movie we followed a flawed and hollow character, whose life is falling into pieces. This leaves him desperate and hopeless, so the opportunity to have himself literally filled by another entity feels like the only way to Will. The ritual performed by the underage costumers – that we saw at the beginning of the film – gives Will the opportunity to have access to “something to define him and his existence”, as the director said in the aforementioned interview.
Even though Wounds doesn’t fully achieve what the director aimed to convey, I feel like the intent is clear enough: the movie follows the journey that brings a person to become possessed, by looking at Will’s troubles in life as the reasons why he’s chosen for this dark path.
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