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.