Dakota Johnson and Armie Hammer in Wounds.

An attractive cast and a handful of arresting visuals can’t save this glossy, underwritten tale of a barman losing his mind

During my particular screening of Wounds at this year’s Sundance film festival, there was an added in-cinema soundtrack. Certain reactions are to be expected when watching a button-pushing horror, from gasps to screams to nervous laughter following a deviously employed jump scare, but others are less desirable, unintentional mockery or incredulity the sign of a major misstep.

The audience was as audibly unsure and exhausted with what was on-screen as I was, a confused, haphazard jumble of ideas, gore and tone, a misfiring curio set to befuddle and disappoint when it finally gets released. It’s an attempt at something artful and opaque yet wrapped in a slick, glossy package, a film that thinks it has something on its mind but is actually terminally vacant. It’s a strange career swerve for British-Iranian writer-director Babak Anvari, who impressed so many with his first feature, the effectively restrained ghost story Under the Shadow, a film constructed with a careful finesse that’s sadly absent here. Based on a novella by Nathan Ballingrud, the film focuses on Will (Armie Hammer), a bartender who enjoys his job just a little too much, preferring to drink with his regulars rather than spend time with girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson).

One night, after a particularly violent brawl, Will finds a cellphone left on the floor. He takes it home and starts to interact with a string of unsettling messages. Strange things then start to happen, many of them involving cockroaches …

Opening quite pretentiously with a Joseph Conrad quote, Anvari hints at the study of a sociopath, but it’s one of the film’s many half-thought ideas and bar one atrociously written domestic row late in the film, it doesn’t take hold in quite the way that it should. Because there’s a lot going on in Wounds yet somehow also very little. There’s a Stephen King-lite protagonist gradually losing his mind and fighting against his worst urges. There’s a Ring-esque techno-curse, complete with supposedly haunting imagery. There’s a psychodrama about alcoholism. There’s a body horror. There’s a lot. Yet in a brief 92 minutes not one of these competing elements is able to develop, the ramshackle script feeling more like a stream of consciousness than anything complete.

Dialogue is stilted and awkward, as if it’s been put through Google Translate a few times while characters, if you can even call them that, act in strange, unlikely ways (much of the audience exhaustion was aimed at dim-witted 80s horror movie behaviour). The performers are left with very little to work with and while Hammer does find away of making the most of his haunted alcoholic, Johnson and Zazie Beetz, two wonderful actors, are stranded with hopelessly one-dimensional roles. Arguably the biggest mystery of the film is exactly why they would have signed on to such a thankless project in the first place.

Relying quite heavily on thunderously scored jump scares, inevitably some of them do work and aside from the more manipulative moments, Anvari does also manage a handful of arresting visuals, especially during the final, nutso scene. But the unintended outcome of these glimpses is a desire for a more effective framework for them to live within. Wounds creeps and crawls and pokes and bleeds but it never really works.

  • Wounds is showing at the Sundance film festival