Wounds, Babak Anvari’s sophomore effort, opens with a quote from Hearts of Darkness about the evil wilderness that whispered to Colonel Kurtz, and how it “echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” And, yeah, that’s a pretty bold choice for a movie about a possessed cell phone that’s trying to contact the emptiness inside of Armie Hammer. But the troubles of Anvari’s follow-up to his unnerving 2016 debut, Under the Shadow, isn’t that it carries a slew of pretenses, but rather that it doesn’t take itself seriously enough, among other things. The film’s thin story does run parallel to some compelling ideas about masculine insecurity, internalized pain and the price of genetic privilege, but Anvari’s jarring jump-scare machine is too preoccupied with gross effects, out-of-nowhere jolts and the strange rash that’s growing in Hammer’s left armpit to engage with any of them.
Wounds centers on Will (Hammer), who has been coasting on his looks and practiced charm since he dropped out of college. He spends his days as a lazy bartender, all too happy to man the bar at Rosie’s, as he’s the only person on duty often keeping the crowd under control. Who’s the heavy, completely nude woman playing pool in the back? Oh, she’s a regular, and naked girls drink free when Will’s working. Will’s usually as drunk as the customers and generally sleepwalks through his responsibilities. But who’s that beautiful twentysomething who flirts with Will before making out with her boyfriend? That’s Alicia (Zazie Beetz), and she’s at Rosie’s every night with her boyfriend, Jeffery (Karl Glusman). Will doesn’t know it, but his girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson) is suspicious enough about Will and Alicia that we have to assume there’s some kind of history there, and there clearly isn’t much trust between them. Have Will and Alicia slept together in the past, or do they just get off on the danger of being near each other? Sorry for all the rhetorical questions, but Wounds is as short on answers as it is long on ambiguity, and as a fan of having some ambiguity, Wounds just makes for such a maddeningly vague experience that it soon feels more sketched than scripted.
One day, on an otherwise unremarkable night at Rosie’s, some kids shuffle in, use a clearly fake ID to order a round of beers and end up capturing a brutal bar fight between a bar regular and a loudmouth wielding a broken beer bottle on one of their cell phones. And very shortly after they leave the bar, one of them leaves behind the cell phone. And soon, some supernatural terror plagues Will after he unlocks the abandoned phone and responds to a few eerie text messages, and from there things only get worse. But over time, it’s Will’s growing fragility that becomes the most intriguing aspect of Wounds. At first, Hammer seems like he’s out of place in a horror film, but Anvari manages to subvert his star’s persona. There’s a growing sense that Will’s good looks and general privilege have allowed him to take things for granted. He didn’t feel compelled to finish college because he assumed that someone would always be willing to pay for the pleasure of having him around. He takes Carrie for granted because he’s safe in the knowledge that some other girl would always want him. He jumps over Alicia’s boundaries because he’s confident that she likes it. This is the first time that the world has been an uncertain place for him, and the anxiety exposes how shallow he is under the surface. Someone calls him a “mock person” at one point, which feels as much of a diss to the character as it does a meta call-out of Anvari’s two-dimensional script.
But all of the more gracious elements fade away as the scares begin to intensify. While Anvari has a solid instinct to pull out the maximum level of dread out of a room, drawing us into the shadowy corners only to punch us from another direction, his visual imagination still remains undeveloped here. Much of the sudden jolts come from quick flashes of unrelated imagery (a bloody eyeball or a severed head), and that trick gets old very quick. And soon Will and Carrie’s house turns into a portal to, well… something, but the threat of that something in the darkness is always more scarier than what Anvari eventually shows us. That is until the film’s final all-or-nothing scene, which is disconnected from the drama of Will’s story, and while its still an inspired sequence, it nevertheless hints at a more disciplined movie Wounds might have been. The harder that Wounds clings to the idea that its mysterious evil force is just a metaphor for its characters’ inner ugliness, the clearer it becomes that none of these people are real enough to carry that kind of weight. It’s telling that, maybe, the most interesting scene is the one in which Hammer just sits at his laptop and Googles some generic occult nonsense. It hints that there’s a chance he might stumble across the plot of a better film. Well, he doesn’t. Showing that in this ham-fisted, underdeveloped film, sometimes wounds just never seem to heal.
Nineteen-year-old director Phillip Youmans’ debut, Burning Cane, is a compelling snapshot of Southern poverty and grief. Early on we see a profound sermon by the newly widowed Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) and soon he’s followed by the soulful voiceover of lonely mother Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), who worries about her alcoholic son Daniel (Dominique McClellan). And after establishing those plotlines in the opening minutes, Burning Cane moves on to its central concerns, cycling through lyrical exchanges and the wondrous environment of its remote African-American community over the course of this quick cinematic tone poem. It unfolds in partially gripping fragments, while also suggesting a filmmaker with lofty ambitions. The spirit of Terrence Malick is clearly felt through Burning Cane, much in the same way it was with David Gordan Green’s debut George Washington, with poetic images of green fields and curious narration drifting through many scenes. But Youmans doesn’t fixate on the awe-inspiring visuals as much as he uses them to convey the desperation of his small ensemble, and its here that movie’s true strengths come into focus.
Of all the fragments, it’s Wendell Pierce’s that shines the most. Pierce throughout exudes a grand sense of sorrow and resignation even as he carries his faith with him through the most dire circumstances. When the drama arrives at a brutal twist in the closing moments, he delivers a somber, biblically inspired monologue that epitomizes the movie’s ability to convey the balance of a world to tradition and family values even as they chart a path to self-destruction. But for the movie as a whole, Burning Cane often can’t shake the feeling of a sketchbook loaded with ideas that could use more fleshing out. Some movies shouldn’t be seen in the context of their creators, but Burning Cane benefits from consideration as an impressive first stab at conveying a growing director’s grand vision. Marinating in textures more than plot, Burning Cane finds haunting beauty in its world of Southern poverty and grief while also introducing a young filmmaker to watch in Phillip Youmans.