Ali Abbasi’s compellingly indignant “Holy Spider” is sure to be compared to any number of modern serial killer movies, but its true-crime subject — an Iranian construction worker who strangled at least 16 sex workers in Masshad as part of his misogynistic crusade to “cleanse the city of corruption” — wasn’t exactly in the same league as the Zodiac or the nightstalker from “Memories of Murder.” On the contrary, Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani, endowing his role with the everyman banality of a martyr in need of a cause) couldn’t have been much clumsier about the finer points of his mission.
A married father of three who dumped all of his victims at the same place after suffocating many of them in the living room of his family’s house, Hanaei was an amateur to the core. The only reason he was able to keep up the slaughter for so long is that nobody was particularly determined to catch him. In a holy city home to both the world’s largest mosque as well as a highly visible prostitution industry, the criminal police have little incentive to solve a problem that the religious police would sooner categorize as a solution.
If the blunt and unfussy first hour of “Holy Spider” elides much of the hair-raising suspense that movies have conditioned us to expect from such awful stories (along with most of the heightened genre weirdness that “Border” fans might be hoping to find in its director’s next feature), that’s only because Abbasi’s film is cloaked in a damningly impenetrable veil of indifference. And that veil only grows thicker once the Abbasi widens his straightforward game of cat-and-mouse into a furious condemnation of the dirtiness that Iranian society will condone in order to keep its self-image clean.
“Holy Spider” is at its most venomous once it fully constructs its web — ditching the neon green and synth-noir trappings of its first half in favor of a more clinical vibe — but the film establishes a number of crucial threads through the process of spinning it. The first is Hanaei himself, whose identity as the “Spider Killer” is revealed almost immediately so that Abbasi is free to complicate it several times over. Hanaei is a devout Muslim who prays at the massive Imam Reza Shrine. He’s a faithful husband, even if his wife is young enough to be his daughter and looks at him with a certain degree of fear. He’s a loving father, whose teenage son worships him like an idol, and whose sweet little daughter laughs when he bounces her on his feet.
Most importantly, Hanaei is also a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, which sent an entire generation of men to their deaths with the promise of making them martyrs. He is one of the few who survived “unscathed” (his word) and has since become desperate for something to fulfill his holy purpose.
Killing the sex workers he finds on the streets of Masshad at night seems like it might do the trick. The headscarves they wear make them easy to strangle so long as he can strike before they have time to take them off (in contrast to most Iranian films, the Jordan-shot “Holy Spider” is free to depict women without their hijabs in private, which it frequently does alongside similarly dangerous provocations like murder, political conspiracies, and an unsimulated blowjob). The newspapers cover the killings with the same moral diffidence of a Fox News segment on Kyle Rittenhouse. Mashhad is suffering from a terrible drought, and the city needs someone to wash its streets clean. Virtually no one seems willing to challenge the virtue of Hanaei’s crusade.
No one, that is, except for headstrong female journalist Rahimi (ex-pat Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi), who’s recently gone freelance after an editor fired her for rejecting his sexual advances. Loosely based on a real woman but largely imagined from scratch for the purposes of Abbas’s film, Rahimi is determined to uncover the truth behind the killings — even if she has to cover herself (or go undercover) to do so.
That Ebrahimi is able to produce such a strong pulse from such a staid character is a testament to the palpable fury she brings to the role. Abbasi’s screenplay falters into cliché whenever it bends the facts of this case towards fiction, but Ebrahimi’s resolve — likely strengthened by her own experience with public misogyny in Iran, which ended with a leaked sex tape forcing the actress to abandon her lucrative TV career and flee the country in search of a fresh start — makes even the film’s most ludicrous contrivance seem faintly plausible.
“Holy Spider” is never fully able to shake free of the sense that Abbasi might be oversimplifying a more complex situation for the benefit of Western audiences, as even the court proceedings that carry the third act betray a certain amount of mustache-twirling villainy ( anyone hungry for a less fictionalized account of this story can seek out the 2002 documentary “And Along Came a Spider”). But the same mechanism that crystallizes the obvious biases of the Iranian legal system also refracts the film’s judgment in a fascinating array of other directions. If the first half of the film shies away from the cheap thrills of its serial killer story, the pointed banality of its final chapters proves as horrifying this genre ever gets. The most chilling thing about “Holy Spider” isn’t that Hanaei might be found innocent, but rather that no one will bother to look any deeper at his guilt.
“Holy Spider” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.