With a title like A Wounded Fawn, ‘70-style grainy cinematography and even credits stylized to look like fancy sloping script, you might be forgiven for thinking Travis Stevens’s latest is an impenetrable art film. Thankfully, the writer-director’s follow-up to his winningly low-stakes vampire movie, Jakob’s Wife, is relatively easy to follow. In fact, at times, it’s a little too literal. The action kicks off at an art auction, where an increasingly contentious bidding war erupts over the acquisition of a statue depicting the Wrath of the Erinys who, the host helpfully explains, were a trio of goddesses that enacted justice against bad men on behalf of female victims (you can see where this is going).
One of the potential buyers is Josh Ruben’s Bruce, who loses out to Malin Barr’s more persistent dealer, Kate. Clearly, he’s taken the loss to heart, glowering in the corner like the kind of man-baby who answers “well, actually” to women on Twitter but then cries foul when they school him in response. Indeed, later that night, long after the auction is over, Kate is relaxing at home with a celebratory glass of wine when Bruce comes knocking at her door. He claims to be there to discuss further negotiations, but anybody who has seen a horror movie knows the dude is clearly angling to murder this poor woman. After some awkward small talk, Bruce does exactly that, utilizing a kind of reverse knuckle-duster with sharp blades attached that’s a bit like Freddy Krueger’s iconic glove, but much easier to hide.
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The focus then switches to Sarah Lind’s Meredith, a lonely woman who’s just gotten out of an abusive relationship and works in the art world, too. She’s preparing for a weekend away with her new beau, who turns out to be Bruce. They take off to an isolated cabin in the woods that’s actually Kate’s house. Although Bruce has scrubbed all traces of her from the place, it turns out Kate hasn’t really left. Rather, her specter is haunting the house but somehow only Meredith can see her, despite the fact Bruce himself is suffering from paranoid delusions of a towering red owl who seemingly encourages him to kill women. What the serial killer doesn’t take into account is that Meredith is an art historian, and a smart and capable woman who realizes something is up much sooner than seemingly anyone else he’s targeted before.
There’s a lot going on in A Wounded Fawn, from the strong, and sadly still timely, message about gender-based violence to the references to Greek mythology that are deftly threaded into the narrative. Stevens, who co-wrote the script with Nathan Faudree, isn’t interested in boring viewers with a history lesson or condescendingly lecturing women about the dangers of trusting men we don’t know. Meredith is a competent protagonist, who senses something is off and demands that she and Bruce leave immediately. The fact he has no intention of letting her go is significant, because Meredith’s presence, alongside the deceased Kate, is a reminder of all the wrongs Bruce has inflicted upon women–he just doesn’t know it yet. Those ills come to the fore in the film’s mind-bending and visually stunning finale, which sees the women quite literally becoming the furious avengers depicted in the statue Bruce stole at the start of the movie.
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They torment him, torture him, and chase him through the woods all while a masked Meredith decries Bruce as “a thief” and “a murderer.” Stevens consistently plays with whether Bruce is really experiencing this horror or simply imagining it, with a mixture of terrific practical and computer-generated effects combining to create a discombobulating sensation that all is not as it seems. In one of the movie’s gnarliest moments, the red owl removes his head to reveal something horribly red and gooey underneath while, elsewhere, Meredith calmy sits across the table from Bruce as snakes roam around her body. A Wounded Fawn is an incredibly tactile film, the kind that crawls under your skin without your even realizing it’s happening. Stevens might lose his nerve in its final moments, as he strains to explain something that’s already clear, but the effect isn’t dulled.
As Bruce, Ruben, who’s making a name for himself as an actor thanks to this role and a fleeting but memorable appearance in Noah Segan’s Blood Relatives, after directing the well-received Scare Me and Werewolves Within, is perfectly cast as the pathetic Bruce, a man so consumed by his own feelings of inadequacy that he’s created this otherworldly being to justify punishing unsuspecting women. Lind and Barr do very fine work too, clearly having a ball as the justice-dispensing goddesses finally forcing this very bad man to pay for his crimes. A Wounded Fawn bears a passing resemblance to the recent Fresh, thanks to its setting and strict warning about trusting new male partners enough to go away with them, but the movie actually has more in common with The Evil Dead, particularly visually, in its depiction of the woods and the dread-soaked journey to the cabin itself.
Ksusha Genenfeld’s gorgeously grainy cinematography gives everything an old-school ‘70s feel, which complements the stunning and frequently horrifying visuals beautifully. Likewise, Vaaal’s creepy original score adds to the increasingly bizarre atmosphere. A Wounded Fawn is a shrewd, uncompromising look at how easily men lure women into dangerous situations – there’s a string of literal red flags hanging up along the side of the road en route to the cabin–but it’s also a clever deconstruction of how these wrongs perpetuate themselves repeatedly throughout history. By utilizing Greek mythology to contextualize Bruce’s crimes and later violently punish him for them, Stevens showcases how little progress has truly been made outside of the stories we tell ourselves. At least his female protagonist is smart enough to flee at the first sign of danger.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Travis Stevens
Writer(s): Travis Stevens, Nathan Faudree
Stars: Sarah Lind, Josh Ruben, Malin Barr
Release date: December 1, 2022 (Shudder)
Run Time: 90 minutes