Guys, this is why I go to all these film festivals. Yes, you do see a lot of filler and the occasional bombs even at the best of them. But when the real deal comes along, when you see a work of true brilliance shared with the world for the first time, that thrill just never gets old. Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi’s HOLY SPIDER is an instantly classic entry into the canon of serial killer crime dramas that premiered in competition at the 75th Cannes Film Festival. In terms of technical mastery and tonal control, it more than holds its own against the SE7EN’s and MEMORIES OF MURDER’s of this world. David Fincher and Bong Joon Ho watch out, a new kid is definitely on the block.
Based on real-life events that took place around the turn of the 21st century, the film revolves around a series of murders that targeted prostitutes in the Iranian pilgrim city of Mashhad. One by one, female sex workers turn up brutally strangled, while the so-called “Spider Killer” openly announces his intention to purge the city of its sins. Police investigation seems to go nowhere, prompting journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) to take it upon herself to find the murderous crusader.
A couple of things set HOLY SPIDER apart from the typical offerings of the genre. First of all it’s not really a whodunnit. The identity of the killer (played by Mehdi Bajestani) is revealed early on in a parallel narrative strand. And so we’d watch Rahimi use her best efforts to collect clues and connect dots, while a working-class family man plans and executes his killings at the same time. It’s a race against time that leads the two plotlines to finally cross in heart-stopping tension. What also makes this story so interesting/disturbing/compelling is its socio-political context. Religious fanaticism combined with deep-rooted misogyny not only creates a potent motive for murder, but an even more unsettling society-wide atmosphere surrounding these crimes. This explains the many hardships Rahimi faces in her investigation and becomes the film’s thematic focus in its final third following the killer’s arrest.
As brilliantly portrayed by Amir-Ebrahimi and Bajestani, HOLY SPIDER boasts an investigator/villain duo for the ages. The Spider Killer is an otherwise functioning citizen who harbors a hateful obsession with female sex workers. Bajestani’s performance leaves many clues about what could have been the root of such a distorted personality. It’s in the ways he interacts with his victims, his God, and most tellingly, the way he later defends himself in court. Instead of a caricature of evil, he delivers a chillingly nuanced profile of a madman. And I love that in this case the Bad Guy doesn’t find his nemesis in the Good Guy, but rather the Good Girl. Prostitution inherently relates to gender dynamics and the murder of (female) prostitutes will rarely not have a misogynistic element. It makes perfect sense to me that the pursuer of justice here would be a woman. And with her resolute, fiercely intelligent screen presence, Amir-Ebrahimi takes on the hypocrisy of an entire society like a true hero. For the intensity, empathy and fragility of the performance, this would be a worthy contender for the best actress prize.
On a technical level, this film simply fires on all cylinders. Bleakly stylized while maintaining a gritty sense of reality, the production design and cinematography bring out the dangers of the night in all their seduction. The editing team gives the film great urgency and builds and holds suspense with relentless rigor. The score and sound design add a deep, cosmic resonance to the visual landscape and contributes immensely to the tension one feels. While the film does feature multiple acts of violence against women that are hard to watch, it’s impossible to look at these individual achievements and not be impressed. Together they create a nightmarish tableau that sucks you in from the very first frame.
Finally, all hail Ali Abbasi. What a directorial tour-de-force this is. I was a fan of BORDER when I saw it four years ago. With HOLY SPIDER, he takes another major step forward and joins the ranks of our most talented genre filmmakers. I do think the court procedural in the film’s final third could be pulled a bit tighter and the ending could come a beat earlier to skip the somewhat heavy-handed use of a video recording. But other than that this dark, thought-provoking, incredibly well-crafted film blew me away. Would be surprised if it doesn’t go home with some serious hardware come Saturday night.