Babak Anvari’s “Wounds” opens with a “Heart of Darkness” quote about the evil wilderness that whispered to Colonel Kurtz, and how it “echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” And, uh, that’s a pretty bold choice for a movie about a demonically possessed cell phone that’s trying to contact the emptiness inside of Armie Hammer.
Alas, the trouble with this silly horror exercise — Anvari’s follow-up to his unnerving 2016 debut, “Under the Shadow” — isn’t that it’s pretentious, but rather that it doesn’t take itself seriously enough. The film’s threadbare story runs parallel to some compelling ideas about masculine insecurity, internalized pain, and the price of genetic privilege, but Anvari’s well-calibrated jump-scare machine is too preoccupied with gross effects, unmotivated jolts, and that strange rash that’s growing in Hammer’s left armpit to engage with any of them. The film may have been conceived as a love letter to the likes of David Lynch and Nicolas Roeg, but — amusingly disgusting finale notwithstanding — it has far more in common with the jittery, skin-deep horror fare that’s filled the massive void those giants have behind after departing for television or the great beyond.
Based on a novella by Nathan Ballingrud, the action begins in a sleepy New Orleans dive bar just before closing time. Will (Hammer), an effortlessly handsome bartender with a shit-eating grin that hides a complete lack of ambition, is the only person on duty, but the crowd is under control. The obese, completely nude woman playing billiards in the back? She’s a regular, and naked girls drink for free. The boisterous drunken tank of a man with questionable politics and a rowdy bunch of meathead friends? That’s Eric (“Orange Is the New Black” actor Brad William), and he’s always like this. Will barely flinches when Eric gets stabbed in the face with a broken bottle. The beautiful twentysomething who flirts with Will before making out with her boyfriend? That’s Alicia (Zazie Beetz), and she’s there every night, which is weird because there are definitely a few other bars in the French Quarter.
Of all these sordid boozehounds and night owls, the only ones who make Will a little nervous are the group of (probably underage) college kids who walk in like they own the place and start filming Eric’s fight instead of doing anything to stop it. Millennials: always helpful when you need to blame someone for all the world’s madness. Will is not amused, and he only gets more annoyed when he sees that one of the teens left their cell phone behind at the bar.
Why does he bring the phone home instead of leaving it at the bar? Will doesn’t know, but his girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson) is suspicious enough that we have to assume there’s some kind of history there. It’s hard to believe that he’s cheated on her before — again, Carrie is played by Dakota Johnson, and her character doesn’t seem to own any pants — but there clearly isn’t much trust between them. Have he and Alicia slept together in the past, or do they just get off on the danger of being near each other? Apologies for all of the rhetorical questions, but “Wounds” is as short on answers as it is long on ambiguity, which makes for such a maddeningly vague experience that it soon feels more sketched than scripted.
That extends to the nameless supernatural terror that begins to plague Will after he unlocks the abandoned phone and responds to a few eerie text messages. The person — or thing! — on the other end of the line sends photos of a man’s decapitated head, and we’re off to the races. Anyone who’s seen a horror movie in the last 20 years can guess where things go from here: Will starts seeing things (giant cockroaches, mostly) and stops sleeping well. He receives a bunch of ominous phone calls, and notices that he’s being followed by a blonde girl in a black Charger (it’s possible to tease out the meaning behind this, but there’s little incentive to try). Literally every single thing in his world turns into a potential jump-scare, as he can’t so much as drink a beer or look out the blinds without the sound editor suddenly cranking things up to 11. It’s no way to live.
Over time, Will’s growing fragility becomes the most intriguing aspect of “Wounds.” At first, Hammer seems like he’s out of place in a horror movie — he’s too jocular, too sturdy, too tall — but Anvari manages to subvert his star’s persona. There’s a growing sense that Will’s good looks and general privilege have allowed him to take things for granted.
He didn’t feel compelled to finish college because he assumed that someone would always be willing to pay for the pleasure of having him around. He takes Carrie for granted because he’s safe in the knowledge that some other girl would always want him. He traipses over Alicia’s boundaries because he’s confident that she likes it. This is the first time that the world has been an uncertain place for him, and the anxiety exposes how shallow he is under the surface. Someone calls him a “mock person” at one point, which feels as much of a diss to the character as it does a self-own of Anvari’s two-dimensional screenplay.
But it gets harder to be so gracious as the scares intensify. While Anvari has a killer instinct for framing a room for maximum dread, pulling our eyes into shadowy corners only to sock us from another direction completely, his visual imagination remains underdeveloped. Many of the sudden frights come from quick flashes of unrelated imagery (a bloody eyeball here, a severed head there), and that trick is old before he even trots it out. Will and Carrie’s house eventually hosts a portal to…something bad…but the threat of something in the darkness is always scarier than what Anvari eventually shows us — at least until the go-for-broke final scene, which is disconnected from the drama of Will’s story but nevertheless hints at the movie a more disciplined “Wounds” might have been.
The harder that “Wounds” cleaves to the idea that its mysterious evil force is just a metaphor for its characters’ inner ugliness, the clearer it becomes that none of these people are real enough to carry that kind of weight. It’s telling that the most interesting scene is the one in which Hammer just sits at his laptop and Googles some generic occult nonsense — there’s a chance he might stumble across the plot of a better film. He doesn’t. Some wounds never heal.
“Wounds” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Annapurna will release it on March 29.