Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Hulu)
Based on the novella “The Visible Filth” by Nathan Ballingrud, “Wounds” aims to descend into the heart of darkness, complete with an opening quote from Joseph Conrad’s novella. The reality of what writer-director Babak Anvari (2016’s chilling, thoughtful “Under the Shadow”) has brought to the screen is only superficially disturbing, empty even. The film is well-acted and has startling imagery—Anvari had me at cockroaches—but the story itself is more of a head-scratcher than a head-trip that burrows under one’s skin and too undercooked to do for cell phones what “The Ring” did for videotapes.
College dropout Will (Armie Hammer) lives a life of complacency as a New Orleans bartender at Rosie’s. When a nasty bar fight breaks out between a couple of regulars, war-vet barfly Eric (Brad William Henke) gets stabbed in the face with a broken beer bottle, clearing out the bar. Before locking up, Will picks up a cell phone belonging to one of the underage college kids he served and takes it home. He manages to unlock the phone and find a series of text messages that make Will’s live-in girlfriend, grad student Carrie (Dakota Johnson), a little suspicious at first. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning once Will finds disturbing photos on the phone, heading toward a roach-infested downward spiral and taking Carrie with him.
“Wounds” is a downbeat, slow-burn nightmare drama that grabs one's attention for a long time. There’s something fun about watching an appealing, strapping actor like Armie Hammer squirm, and he really gets to go through the wringer as Will, rising to the occasion when it comes to going to deeply dark places. Dakota Johnson is fine with what she is given as Carrie, but she is mostly asked to either be supportive yet suspicious or sleepy in a fugue state. Zazie Beetz (2019’s “Joker”) has a little bit more to work with as Alicia, Will’s ex, close friend and bar regular who’s now seeing someone else (Karl Glusman), and captivates with her natural charisma alone.
There are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash frames with unsettling, nightmarish imagery involving cockroaches and a few creepy stylistic flourishes, like a quick dim of the lights revealing a bedroom with blood spattered all over the walls that isn’t really there. Humming along with a sense of dread, “Wounds” doesn’t go off the rails so much as it just spins its wheels until not coming together. A lot of the film feels murky and inexplicable, hinting at ritualistic sacrifices and Lovecraftian portals, as if it’s building to something without quite getting there. Director Babak Anvari may end things on an effectively gross note, but “Wounds” botches the landing, leaving the viewer bewildered with one question among many, “What did I just watch?”