(Written by Sean Boelman, disappointment media)
Swedish-Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi’s last film, Border, was released to great acclaim, so his newest movie, Holy Spider was one of the most anticipated films of Cannes when it debuted earlier this year. However, this uneven procedural thriller doesn’t live up to expectations, becoming one of the biggest disappointments of the year. In the movie, a brutal serial killer known as the “Spider Killer” (Medhi Bajestani) plagues the streets of the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, murdering sex workers with the belief that he was cleaning the streets of sinners.
At the same time, a journalist (Zar Emir Ebrahimi) goes undercover in an attempt to discover and expose the identity of the Spider Killer. Abbassi and his co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami have created a fictionalized version of the story of serial killer Saeed Hanaei, who killed 16 women in the early 2000s before he was caught by the authorities. If Abbassi and Bahrami deserve credit for one thing, it is creating a story that is believably gritty, even if the narrative structure causes it to have uneven pacing.
Holy Spider starts off extremely well, with an opening sequence that sets the stage for an anxiety-inducing thriller. We watch as the Spider Killer claims the life of his first victim (or at least the first victim that we see), the shots lingering uncomfortably long and forcing the viewer to watch something that they undoubtedly don’t want to be seeing. However, as the Spider Killer claims victim after victim, Abbasi hardly changes anything about the visual vocabulary of the scenes. Obviously, the nature of the story is that he has a particular modus operandi — a vicious calling card that shows he killed his victims in the name of God, not for any other reason. Even though these scenes are undeniably disturbing, the viewer will nevertheless start to grow bored with them as each blends together with the last.
At a certain point, it becomes clear that the atmosphere which Abbassi intends to create is simply upsetting. An upsetting atmosphere can be an effective way to present a call to action for the audience and make them understand the wrong in their ways, but this Holy Spider goes beyond that to a level that nears outright nihilism. This is certainly a movie that is meant to leave the viewer feeling unsettled, uncomfortable even, but it is excessively brooding to the point of being unwatchable. The single biggest mistake that Abbassi and Bahrami make is focusing Holy Spider on the killer and the journalist investigating him, not leaving the audience enough time to care about the victim. Only one of them is given much development, and that is through the relationship she shares with the journalist character. By not giving the victims any development, Abbassi and Bahrami essentially fall prey to the same misogyny that their movie is intended to critique.
They also aren’t particularly subtle with their commentary on religious extremism, and how the mindset of martyrdom has caused society to enter into this violent spiral, yet he almost seems afraid to be overly incendiary. It’s clear throughout Holy Spider that Abbassi is attempting to engage with the complex subject matter he is exploring in his script, but only in the harrowing final scene does he do anything that feels nuanced. Instead, we spend much of the movie watching short bursts of brutality interspersed through long stretches of mundanity. Not even the journalistic investigation into the killings is particularly cinematic, which is surprising given how many other films have been made recently turning a journalistic endeavor into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. It almost feels as if Abbassi relied far too much on the shock value to carry the story.
Abbassi also makes the mistake of making the movie overly crisp when it is intended to be set in the seedy underbelly of Iran. In the background, we see the decrepit buildings and trash-littered streets of the city, but that is the only visual cue we get of the griminess of what is happening. Much of Holy Spider is well lit, and the cinematography framed exquisitely. It is odd saying that a movie so formally precise is not well-made, but ultimately, this particular story would have been better-served by a rougher style. Holy Spider could have been a timely film with its themes dissecting misogyny and religious extremism with a story inspired by harrowing true events, but Abbassi approaches the material in such a way that it is an uneven experience. The first ten or so minutes show a lot of potential, but the rest of the movie is so dull and dour that it isn’t worth recommending.
Holy Spider screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.