First and foremost, a confession. I’ve always had a thing against cockroaches and similar bugs. It’s not really a phobia, but a deep sense of disgust. So imagine my reaction when I enter the theater for the world premiere of Babak Anvari’s Wounds at the Sundance Film Festival and find the theater filled with fake roaches. This is to say, Wounds is a very gross movie with clear Lovecraftian influences; unfortunately, its horror elements work against the relationship at the center of the film.
Armie Hammer plays Will, a bartender in a New Orleans dive bar with a drinking problem, a faulty relationship with his lived-in girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson), and a crush on Alicia (Zazie Beetz), a regular who is showing off her new boyfriend at the bar. The opening scene does a great job of luring the audience in while also creating misdirection that will follow both us and the characters for the rest of the story. We see the fun banter between Will, Ashley, and her boyfriend Jeffrey (Karl Glusman). Even when the volatile war vet Eric (Brad William Henke) shows up, seemingly threatening Jeffrey, there’s animosity between the patrons.
Will helps himself to as many drinks as his regulars have, but otherwise things are friendly and funny, except for the roaches craving around the bar, the underage college kids with sinister faces sitting quietly in the corner – oh, and the ugly bar brawl that results in a broken glass bottle finding its way to the side of Eric’s face, leaving a gnarly wound. Of course, the college kids start recording the fight, and promptly leave when the cops are called, except they left a cell phone. Will, who is definitely not the smartest man in the world, takes the phone home and looks through the pictures on the phone, which are of the decapitated head variety – you know, kids stuff.
From here, Wounds enters a Lovecraftian world of supernatural horror and insanity, as Will starts getting affected by the horrible images he saw, and is tormented by the constant calling and texting from the college kids who may have left their phone on purpose.
Hammer returns to Sundance with a performance that is more similar to his selfish douchebag with a bro exterior from Sorry to Bother You than his charismatic good guy role in Call Me By Your Name, and his slow descent into madness is delightful to witness. The rest of the cast isn’t so lucky. While Dakota Johnson has the most interesting storyline – her volatile relationship to Hammer’s Will drives the story forward as well as Will’s arc – she is stuck in a reactionary role, serving only to be the foil to Will’s fun. Johnson does get to be the exposition delivery for the audience, as her investigation into the phone’s contents takes her on a hellish journey including a supernatural cult, higher beings, and being hypnotized by a weird digital tunnel.
When it comes to the horror, Anvari doesn’t play with the genre as much as he could have. Instead, he goes for cheap jump scares, loud noises, and cockroaches in approximately 98% of the scenes. It’s a pity, especially since the little we discover about the mythology of the film is more interesting than the actual plot.
It’s hard to figure out exactly what movie was in Anvari’s mind when he set out to make Wounds, as it struggles with deciding whether to follow the relationship between Will and Carrie and Will’s alcoholism, or the weird mythology surrounding the phone. Ultimately the film tries to have it both ways, but never achieves the full potential of either.
Wounds will definitely gross you out, but there isn’t enough meat in these bones to keep your interest through the millionth sight of a cockroach or jump scare at the sound of an incoming text.