2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Every festival has its hits and misses and Babak Anvari‘s new film, “Wounds,” is, unfortunately, a miss.
Armie Hammer stars as Will, a bartender at a local joint in New Orleans. It’s the type of place that has its regulars that all know each other by the first name. And it’s the type of place where college kids wander in when they want to try something off the beaten path. Will is amiable enough, though he spends most of his time chatting with his friend Alicia (Zazie Beetz) and her boyfriend, Jeffrey (Karl Glusman).
One night, a group of college kids wanders in, two boys and two girls. All are obviously underage, but one hands over a fake ID and Will accepts it without much hesitation. The trouble starts when two burly regulars get into a violent brawl that ends with both men bleeding and running off before the police arrive. The college kids also take off, leaving behind a cell phone that Will shoves in his pocket and forgets to leave behind when his shift is over.
If the story had stayed in this singular location, on this particular night, in this scene, it might have been really good. The first fifteen minutes or so are interesting and each of the actors uses their wiles to build the kind of unsettling tension that compels you to go on and find out what happens next.
But, instead, Anvari takes the story out of the bar and follows Will home to his girlfriend, Carrie (Dakota Johnson). Things begin to unravel when he discovers the phone is still in his pocket and it starts receiving odd text messages. This leads to a series of increasingly strange events that may or may not have ties to occult activity, ancient forces of evil, and a mysterious tunnel.
The overall problem with “Wounds” is that it doesn’t seem to know what story it wants to tell. Sometimes it feels similar to “The Ring,” but with a lot of unnecessary relationship drama. When Will heads down the rabbit hole of trying to solve a mystery, it takes a toll on him and his mood, but Hammer never really gets a lot of time to experience those emotions. He fights with Carrie, flirts with Alicia, gets into a fight with his boss, sees disturbing and violent flashes of visions. But he never deals with any of it.
The underdeveloped mystery never satisfies, either. In a city with as vibrant and rich a culture as New Orleans, Anvari ignores many opportunities to delve into things like voodoo and black magic. They are merely hints without exploration. Those college kids may as well have been playing with a Quija board in the middle of Kansas for all the time spent examining their pursuits.
The best thing to say about “Wounds” is that Hammer is clearly committed to the work. He believes in Will’s journey, even if he can’t quite get the audience to do the same. Unfortunately, he is undone by laughably bad dialogue and emotional moments that never hit. Scenes go nowhere, there is no sense of geography, and Anvari does nothing to communicate exactly what danger is lurking.
The biggest problem is that there is an ending, but not a conclusion. If done well, a film can get away with not explaining everything. But it has to explain something. And this never does. The result is a general sense of bewilderment as the credits roll and you realize that everything is meaningless. At least the journey was entertaining, even if mostly on accident.