Written & Directed by Babak Anvari
Wounds is the film adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s fantastic 2015 novella “The Visible Filth.” The story centers on Will, a bartender at a scummy dive in New Orleans. One night, while tending bar, a fight breaks out between his friend Eric and another patron that ends with Eric slashed across the cheek. A group of teens using fake IDs scatter when they hear about the cops. As Will cleans up, he discovers a cell phone he thinks belongs to these young people. It’s only when he gets home that he opens the phone and finds disturbing pictures that hint at some sort of ritual performed to connect with another realm. Will’s life slowly becomes infested with a darkness at the edges, creeping closer, threatening to devour him.
I loved Ballingrud’s text, and I was woefully disappointed with the film adaptation. What they get right is the ambiguous nature of the horror. This isn’t something necessarily Judeo-Christian. There’s a brief bit about Gnosticism, but exact origins and details of the evil are kept vague. I appreciate keeping to this part of the book because that just makes what happens even more disturbing. The audience cannot get a foothold with anything familiar and is in the shoes of our protagonist, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Where the picture falters lies in the script and cinematography. Hearing some talented actors deliver the dialogue they are tasked with can be downright painful in moments. Dakota Johnson has a small supporting role as Will’s girlfriend and is given almost nothing to do until the third act. But that ends so quickly, and we never get more from her. Armie Hammer feels out of place in the role, delivering a stiff performance at times and then being brilliant in others. The character of Will is an entitled pretty boy who has seen better days. He’s aging, and the looks and charm he coasted on have dried up. At his age, there’s an expectation of some ambition; instead, he just drinks constantly and shoots the shit at the bar.
A comment near the end of the film that Will is “a fake human, hollow inside” rings very true from a technical standpoint. The movie is caught between the plot and the characters and sadly goes for the plot more often than not. The relationship between Will and his girlfriend feels underdeveloped, and I get that we’re meeting them in the last days, but there’s no sense of why they ended up together in the first place. Will has more chemistry with Alicia (Zazie Beetz), a frequent patron who is with someone else. I understood where the attraction came from between them, enabling each other to spiral into nothing.
This was a case of the script sticking too close to the source material, which was mostly inside the head of the protagonist. We understood Will motivation’s because we could read what was going on in his psyche. Because director Babak Anvari doesn’t want to stray too far from the novella, the audience could easily be baffled by what is going on. I don’t think there needed to be more exposition, but if the shot composition has been used as a form of nonverbal commentary, then it would have solved two problems: making the film looks less dull & flat and communicate some of Will’s inner thoughts.
Wounds is ultimately a sad disappointment, faithful to the original story, but lacking in any sort of stylistic flourishes. There are moments where the movie can convey parts of the story the novella could not, but these are fleeting and can’t overcome the many flaws the picture has. Nathan Ballingrud’s short story collecting North American Lake Monsters is being developed into anthology series by Amazon. Here’s hoping the filmmakers behind that project can add some exciting aesthetics to help compliment the stories.