How should we balance a movie’s aims and execution, when the two very evidently diverge? In dramatizing the true story of early-aughts serial killer Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), who murdered 16 sex workers, director Ali Abbasi (“Border”) claims that his intention “was not to make a serial killer movie.” As he says in the film’s press notes, “I wanted to make a movie about a serial-killer society. Misogyny everywhere breeds through the habits of people.”
Among these habits, alas, is the knee-jerk objectification and exploitation of women, a practice in which “Holy Spider” repeatedly engages. Within minutes, Saeed’s first victim is shot gratuitously nude; her murder and the subsequent ones that follow are so explicitly violent that Abbasi’s nobly stated goals start to reflect the depressing hypocrisy of his subject.
What’s equally dispiriting is that there were so many other ways to make the very cultural critique to which Abbasi, who cowrote the script with Afshin Kamran Bahrami, lays claim. (In fact, this is the third film on the subject, following a documentary and another drama.)
Saeed was a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, but when he realizes that his time in the Iranian army hasn’t resulted in any lasting change, his anger turns elsewhere. He looks around a community in which women’s values are policed nonstop and decides that vigilantism in the name of God is his best chance at cleansing himself and the world.
Meanwhile, as he tricks one “fallen” woman after another into his lair, before choking her or stomping on her face, a second — and better — film is also developing. A young journalist named Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) wants to catch the “Spider Killer,” as he’s been dubbed by media. She is horrified that he’s become a folk hero to many who believe that he is, indeed, doing holy work. It’s risky enough for her to travel to his city of Mashhad as a single woman, let alone to put herself in his sights in an effort to expose him. But as unnerving as her work is, the larger conspiracy she suspects she’s up against is just as daunting.
Bajestani is believably repellent as someone whose split lives as an obsessive loner and respected family man are disturbingly concordant. And Nadim Carlsen’s gritty camerawork pushes the film’s sense of grim social realism further still, providing a viscerally authentic horror.
Abbasi doesn’t seem to realize, though, that he’s creating much of that horror himself. Yes, Saeed has been exposed to cruelly patriarchal mores, but the fetishistic way in which the killings unfold take us well past any social statement. There’s also a notable contrast between the film’s commitment to Saeed and to his victims, who appear primarily so that they can soon be excruciatingly murdered.
This makes it all the more confusing that Rahimi’s story — which is mostly fictional — is so well told. Much of this is due to Amir-Ebrahimi’s excellent performance, which goes as far as possible toward correcting the film’s imbalance. Were the movie shot entirely from her perspective, it may well have become the moral condemnation Abbasi intends.
But eventually, as we’re forced to watch scene after scene with a soulless and self-deluded murderer — which surely could describe most serial killers, regardless of their religion or culture — we have to wonder why Abbasi took such a graphic approach. To shock us? Surely getting to know the victims better would have generated a deeper emotional connection. To indict us? For what, though? Engaging in the art he has chosen to make in this specific way?
As he says in those press notes, “The dehumanization of groups of people, especially women, is not unique to Iran but can be found, in different variations, in all corners of the world.” He’s right. Unfortunately, those corners still include far too many movie screens.
“Holy Spider” opens in NYC Oct. 28 and LA Nov. 4 via Utopia.