Entertainment

Armie Hammer Sheds His Clean-Cut Image in Grotesque Horror Movie 'Wounds'

wounds sundance
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Michele K Short.

The New Orleans dive bar at the center of Wounds, a pleasingly grotesque horror movie that recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is one of the grossest bars in the history of cinema. There are cockroaches skittering around the liquor bottles, bloody fistfights breaking out between the gruff patrons, underage teens sharing beers in the corner, and a nude woman shooting pool in the middle of the night. As the health code violations and potential customer service complaints pile up, you start to wonder: Why would anyone keep coming back to this place? It must be the bartender Will, played with slick, oily charm by Armie Hammer.

The charismatic jerk, particularly one who can use his action-figure looks and prep-school social status to float through tricky situations, is Hammer's specialty. From his compelling double-turn as the defiant Winklevoss twins in The Social Network to his sensitive portrayal of a vacationing grad student in Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, Hammer has a gift for playing characters that move through the world with ease. Wounds, director Babak Anvari's follow-up to 2016's Iran-set thriller Under the Shadows, again finds Hammer in that easygoing mode, but this time there are festering sores beneath the facade. He's playing a man who, through a series of bizarre events, begins to discover he may have no moral center at all.

This isn't the first time Hammer has subverted his own smug rich guy persona at Sundance -- just last year he played a drug-sniffing capitalist in Boots Riley's satire Sorry to Bother You -- but Wounds is the most aggressive and alienating attempt to smudge the image he's established. Anvari has weaponized Hammer's most appealing qualities, sharpening his grin into a blade he thrusts at the audience. There are aspects of the movie that simply do not work: wooden line readings that don't land, vague literary allusions that don't connect, and a comically abrupt ending that will leave viewers howling at the screen. But as an act of star-driven self-sabotage, it's completely compelling.

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Zazie Beetz, Armie Hammer and director Babak Anvari | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess.

When we first meet Will, he's tending bar on a night when there are "more bugs than people" at Rosie's, the watering hole where he's made his living since dropping out of Tulane years before. Besides the dingy bar he draws a paycheck from, Will has what looks like a nice life: He has a beautiful girlfriend, Carrie (Dakota Johnson); a comfy-looking house stacked with paperback books and dusty records; and a schedule that leaves him plenty of time for leisurely breakfasts and afternoon beers. Still, it's clear Will is unhappy and adrift. He drinks too much, slamming shots at the bar and pulling bottles out of his fridge with weary resignation; he also flirts with one of his regulars, Alicia (Zazie Beetz), in a way that suggests he's eager to cheat. He's a classic scoundrel.

Then there's the cell phone. The lengthy opening scene of the movie finds Will chatting with Alicia and her boyfriend (Karl Glusman), breaking up a brutal fight that leaves his burly friend Eric (Brad William Henke) injured, and eventually picking up a phone with a couple harmless-looking stickers on it left behind by a group of mysterious teenagers. This is where Anvari's script, which is based on a novella called The Visible Filth by writer Nathan Ballingrud, looks like it's setting up a fairly standard Ring-like premise. After getting home late, Will unlocks the phone and receives a few disturbing texts from the phone, plus a video of a decaying human skull swarmed by cockroaches. He shows it to Carrie, but remains relatively calm, telling himself that the phone must belong to "some nerd who works in special effects."

As you'd imagine, Will ends up being disastrously wrong and his life quickly unravels. Will soon discovers the teens were mixed up with some occult shenanigans, but his ad-hoc investigation, which includes a friendly meeting with a pair of cops who frequent his bar, doesn't lead the movie down a tense, punishing social media thriller path. (Will does complain about "fucking millennials" at one point.) Instead, Anvari keeps his story focused on Will's manipulative, self-pitying dynamic with both Carrie and Alicia; the supernatural plot-points and jump-scares are never fully explained. Many of Anvari's visual concepts owe a debt to David Cronenberg's understanding of body horror: The armpit rash that Hammer itches away at is in the same location as Marilyn Chambers's killer orifice in Rabid, the ambient tech paranoia has echoes of Videodrome, and the creepy, crawly bugs are worthy of Naked Lunch. Instead of severity, these elements are treated with offbeat humor and, occasionally, a troll-like smirk.

The lack of clear-cut explanations for what the hell is going on here will be the biggest hurdle for many viewers. Perhaps after watching so many movies at the festival that painstakingly restated their themes over and over, I was particularly vulnerable to Anvari's distaste for logic and coherence. The tactile imagery, particularly the unending cave Johnson stares into on her computer and swarming insects that appear at random, kept me engaged even when the psychology and the storytelling didn't quite add up. As Hammer sweats, twitches, and shouts his way through the movie's nightmare-like final stretch, Wounds takes on a hypnotic quality. Sometimes you just want to see a pretty smile get turned upside down.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.