'Wounds' Review: Armie Hammer Really Shouldn't Have Picked Up That Haunted Cell Phone [Sundance]

A sweat-drenched, hypnotizing descent into horror, Babak Anvari's Wounds is full of contradictions. It's the type of movie that regularly swings from tense to laughable, from serious to ludicrous, from spine-tingling to eye-rolling. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thoroughly entertained as I watched Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson go off the deep end after discovering a cursed cell phone.

Will (Hammer) is a New Orleans bartender who's nursing a drinking problem and an unrequited crush on his old flame Alicia (Zazie Beetz), who comes into the bar to show off her new boyfriend. When Eric (Brad William Henke), a bulked-up, aggro war vet who lives above Will's bar, stumbles in one night and gets in a vicious fight, it's all caught on film by some underage college kids Will had knowingly served earlier in the evening. That was his first mistake. The kids bounce, leaving a cell phone behind – which Will mindlessly picks up on his way out. That was his second mistake. See, there's some messed up s*** on that phone, including photos of a murder scene and a decapitated head. And the kids won't stop texting and calling Will. His girlfriend Carrie (Johnson), who has reasons to be distrustful of Will, picks up the phone and sees this horrific imagery, and it sends her down a rabbit hole of research into Gnostic human sacrifice rituals and late nights staring, unblinking, at a video of a creepy tunnel – which may or may not be a portal to another realm.

That premise, which could be shared with any number of forgettable Blumhouse-style, jump scare-heavy spookfests over the past several years, doesn't reveal that this movie is actually Anvari's unsettling exploration of the effects of alcoholism, as Will's violent incidents are tied directly to his excessive drinking throughout the story. There's a literary component, too. The movie opens with a quote from Joseph Conrad's classic novel Hearts of Darkness; later, Carrie is writing a paper about the function of allusion in T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," a poem that begins with a reference to Hearts of Darkness character Colonel Kurtz. During one of their many arguments in the film, Carrie calls Will a "mock person," pointing to the emptiness inside him.

The allusions don't stop there. The film's editing seems to be inspired by a specific line from "The Hollow Men": "Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow." During Will's spiral into madness, he's plagued with visions – split-second flashes of decapitated friends and loved ones that all happen "between the idea" and the act; the poem's "Shadow," an evil entity represented in the movie by an eyeball surrounded by decaying flesh, is haunting Will, and things aren't looking good for him. Hey, the messages may not be particularly deep, but some of it still works – it's like stepping into a kiddie pool on a sweltering summer day.

Hammer, back at Sundance after his appearance in last year's Sorry to Bother You, again ditches his charismatic nice guy persona to play a selfish asshole to positive results. He's angry, pleasant enough on the surface, but with glimpses at the bottled rage simmering just underneath as he drains bottles of liquor to fill a hole he doesn't know how to fill. Johnson holds her own, but this is the best cinematic role yet for Zazie Beetz, who is spellbinding to watch as she grapples with the complicated feelings she has for Will.

Wounds is interested in exploring our dark sides, tapping into that uneasy feeling that takes hold when we're alone at night, and creeping us out with an abundance of cockroaches. It's successful enough at all of these to recommend, although I am curious how the horror community is going to react to this. Wounds' unnerving elements outweighed many of its shortcomings for me, but hardcore genre fans may not be quite as forgiving.

Annapurna Pictures will release Wounds in March 2019.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10