Nights at Rosie’s bar tend to go awry. In this squalid corner of Bourbon Street, there are bugs on the whiskey bottles, underage kids sidling up for beers, nude women playing pool, brutes smashing glasses, and in the center of the maelstrom, bartender Will (Armie Hammer) pouring shots and finagling how to steal his crush, Alicia (Zazie Beetz), from her latest boyfriend (Karl Glusman) without his live-in girlfriend, Carrie (Dakota Johnson), getting suspicious. Sounds like the setting of a Eugene O’Neill play, but for “Wounds” writer-director Babak Anvari, it’s a cocktail just right for a psychological breakdown, with a body-horror chaser.
One evening, a student leaves a cell phone, which in the late hours starts receiving messages about a thing from a tunnel and a cursed book. In the morning, there’s a texted photo of a bloody pile of teeth. Will didn’t start this terror, and he’s too much of a slacker to end it – though he does give a self-satisfied shimmy when he gets past the phone’s lock screen. If “Wounds” were a normal horror film, he’d be the moron who dies off-screen. Of course, Anvari, whose 2016 debut, “Under the Shadow,” was a retro spook story set in ’80s Tehran, doesn’t do normal. “You let your man handle this,” swaggers Will to a fretful Carrie. Then he gets an unwelcome mental image of her severed head.
“Wounds” isn’t as coherent as “Under the Shadow,” which melded the paranormal and the political. Instead, Anvari has set out to make a mood piece that succeeds in scaring the audience senseless. There are flying cockroaches, shapes walking in front of the camera, heads appearing to bubble, a tiny hand crawling out of a skull – things that sound crazy when Will attempts to describe them to the police, and sound just as mad when one exits the theater trying to explain what one has just seen.
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Hammer is his own special effect. He’s a presence so tall and winning and cartoonishly perfect that he’s Prince Charming made corporeal. Hollywood has never seemed to know what to do with him, but Anvari plays to Hammer’s strengths as a man who looks like he has it all until he opens his mouth. Will, an alcoholic college dropout, bounces into scenes like a golden beam of light, and then stiffens into his full and threatening six foot five. “You’re a mock person,” Carrie sneers at him. The insult seems to sting. Yet, all Will is prepared to do about it is pound a beer for breakfast and ring up Beetz’s charismatic party girl Alicia to see if she’ll boost his mood.
Will isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to, like, solve anything. Anvari’s challenge is how to make a propulsive, engaging, and often deliberately funny film about a character who would ordinarily exist only in the margins of a more taut, and perhaps more phony, script. He ups the tension with a continuous bone-rattling sound mix that resembles everything from a beetle skittering across a microphone to someone moving furniture upstairs. When Will calls the cursed phone, there’s an unholy shriek that sounds like a thousand lost souls. Yet, perhaps it is holy, suggests Carrie, who finds a connection between these images and ancient Gnosticism, a faith that saw the human body as a meat sack separating us from the divine.
A branch of the Gnostics mutated into the extinct Persian religion Manichaeism, which may be how it landed on Anvari’s radar. Whatever the case, “Wounds” also bears little respect for the flesh. Here, when a body is tunneled into and abused, it seems to open a vent into the soul. The trouble for Will and the rest of the roustabouts at Rosie’s bar is that at their core, they’re full of lust, violence, and rage. As for Anvari, he’s content to watch these vile volcanoes rumble and explode.