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In a culture—both film-going and in general—that increasingly rejects intellectualism, there’s something refreshing about a movie where a key plot point revolves around a character’s ability to accurately appraise a piece of ancient Greek sculpture. “A Wounded Fawn” is a film that celebrates art and art history, one that reaches back across the millennia for inspiration and pulls out symbolism that still resonates today. You can call it pretentious if you must. But don’t call it stuffy.
The third film from writer/director Travis Stevens (“Jakob’s Wife,” “Girl on the Third Floor”) is forged in fire and blood, taking his eye for striking visuals and elevating it to psychedelic new heights. Stevens’ primary aesthetic touchstone for “A Wounded Fawn” is ‘70s grindhouse cinema, with all its grit, grain, and fraught gender politics. This is crossed with the intense pools of bright color popularized by Dario Argento, and combined with the grotesque sensibilities of Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings.” The combined effect is one of feverish hallucination.
The driving emotion behind all of this in-your-face style is anger—specifically, women’s righteous fury towards misogynist forces of violence and oppression. These are embodied in the form of Bruce (Josh Ruben), a seemingly nice guy about whom museum curator Meredith (Sarah Lind) is feeling really good after a handful of dates. The audience knows that Bruce is bad news when Meredith agrees to accompany him upstate for a romantic weekend in the country: In a cold open, we’ve already seen Bruce stalk and slash an art dealer in pursuit of “The Wrath of the Erinyes,” a very old piece of sculpture depicting the three Furies of Greek mythology. Now we’re just waiting for Meredith to catch up.
A misogynistic psycho murdering a woman to take possession of a statue representing feminine rage is symbolically loaded to the point of being on the nose. Luckily, the revenge is just as brazen. In its first half, “A Wounded Fawn” unfolds like a smart, but not particularly groundbreaking serial-killer thriller. In its second, it spins out into something surreal and unexpected as Bruce receives supernatural comeuppance for his many crimes. This, of course, is satisfying to watch. But what makes it really interesting is that it’s never clear to what extent these howling harpies are coming from Bruce’s own mind.
At the movie’s midpoint, the tone shifts from lean and nasty to bombastic and grandiose. The mythological entities that have thus far hovered in the background of the story turn into flesh-and-blood characters as the three Furies—Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera—show up, intoning in thunderous voices about the damage they’re about to inflict on this pathetic waste of oxygen. Add a human-sized owl, its steampunk acolytes, gallons of red-orange blood, and loads of occult symbolism, and “A Wounded Fawn’s” metamorphosis from a violent caterpillar into an equally violent, but infinitely weirder butterfly is complete.
At times, the back half of the film comes off like an avant-garde theater production, or maybe a bunch of Shakespearean actors high on psychedelics—think people wrapped in bedsheets soaked in fake blood running through the woods screaming about wrath. But the moments when “A Wounded Fawn’s” low-budget seams begin to show don’t ruin the movie. There are a couple of reasons for this: First is Stevens’ clever embrace of grindhouse aesthetics. Those movies were all held together with duct tape, too, so the rough edges enhance the effect.
Second is the lead actors’ commitment to their roles. Lind is a force of nature as Meredith, animated by a divine wind that pushes her forward with the sureness of a Valkyrie on horseback. And Ruben gamely takes his lumps, particularly in an extended credits sequence that perfectly sums up the film’s blend of absurdity, audacity, and righteous anger. In his previous work, Stevens played around with genre conventions. Here, he shatters them into a thousand pieces.
On Shudder now.