A bad film — one that never had any chance of being anything other than inadequate — is not the most disappointing cinematic experience. No, the biggest disappointment is seeing a film that could have been good but veered off the path it set for itself and wasted its potential. Directed by Travis Stevens and co-written by Stevens and Nathan Faudree, A Wounded Fawn starts strong (albeit with some eye-rolling moments), but it squanders all of its early momentum and goodwill with a tedious, faux-feminist second half that is not nearly as weird as it would like to think itself. At this point in Stevens’ career I feel confident in saying that if you like what he does, you will enjoy this movie, but if you’re not a fan of his uneven style, A Wounded Fawn will do nothing to change your mind.
The film opens on an auction for a statuette of the Erinyes, a group of female vengeance deities from Greek mythology. Nervy percussion and frenzied strings heighten the tension of the bidding war and disjointed extreme close-ups — showing us perfectly knotted ties, neat pocket squares, and pursed mouths, all signs of upper-class masculinity — put the viewer on edge. It’s an effective, well-paced fight that ends, ultimately, in bloodshed. Bruce (Josh Ruben) is a serial killer with an eye for beautiful things, and he claims a fresh victim and adds the statuette to his collection in one fell swoop. Then, a title card reading “Act One” in red cursive letters signals that the horror is just beginning.
The remainder of the film focuses on Meredith (Sarah Lind), a fellow art lover scheduled to go on a romantic weekend getaway to Bruce’s cabin. Stevens leans heavily on the dramatic irony, creating some delightfully tense moments through tight close-ups and slightly off-kilter angles in the long stretch of time before Meredith realizes who Bruce really is. However, Stevens can’t control his penchant for stepping on every scare: he goes to the ‘breathy whispers accompany a figure suddenly moving past the camera’ well a few too many times. And in case you thought the film was being a bit too subtle, the camera lingers on a banner of waving red flags as Bruce refuses to make any stops on the long drive to the cabin lest they run across any potential witnesses. Later on, Meredith makes a worrying discovery just as a literal record scratch interrupts the soundtrack.
There are so many things about this film that work that it makes the parts that land with a thud feel all the more egregious. Shot on 16mm, A Wounded Fawn looks fantastic. The grain is warm yet menacing, and cinematographer Ksusha Genenfeld turns the recurring reds — from Bruce’s front door to the visions he sees just before he kills to the pools of blood he creates just after — into glowing mythologies of their own. Vaaal’s score is fascinating: drum-heavy and very elemental, it bolsters the film’s emphasis on divine retribution (a theme that the script, unfortunately, cannot support all the way through). Stevens creates some individually compelling moments of horror imagery, but they’re wasted in a film that turns into a tedious mess.
The second act (once again helpfully delineated by a red cursive interstitial card) devolves into a faux-hallucinatory quagmire that squanders any tension or menace by announcing itself as significantly terrifying and narratively meaningful. Once again spurning any attempt at subtlety or nuance, the film sets up blinking neon signs announcing, “This is the scary part!” or “Pay attention, because there are Big Themes here!” The camera lingers far too long on images that are less interesting and less impactful than the film believes them to be. It hits viewers over the head with empty symbolism and expects them to be awestruck rather than disappointed and impatient. A Wounded Fawn comes to a screeching halt with 15-20 minutes to go, leaving the talented cast and crew stranded in a story that, frustratingly, had the potential to be far more than how it turned out.
And the cast is indeed talented. Josh Ruben gives this role his all, playing Bruce with just a touch of Mark Duplass’s passive-aggressive terror from Creep, but giving his own particular brand of enraged intensity. If I were a bigger fan of the film in general, I would say that A Wounded Fawn makes for an interesting pairing with Ruben’s own Scare Me, since both films feature men coming to terms with their toxic masculinity in isolated cabins. Equally good is Sarah Lind, who plays Meredith’s fear, desire, and anger in such a brittle yet vulnerable way that it earns the film more goodwill than I believe the script deserves. She owns the screen at all times, giving Meredith strength and intelligence that are more feminist than any of the sledgehammer-subtle mythological notes of the second act.
A Wounded Fawn feels far too impressed with its own supposed weirdness or depth to be as average as it is. It takes an interesting idea, adds a great score, great cinematography, and great performances, and then throws it all away halfway through its runtime. There will be (and judging from early Tribeca reactions, there already are) a lot of fans of this film. But I am not one of them, because I see the movie that could have been. It’s hidden behind the pacing issues, laughably artless metaphors, and overdone scares, but it is there. And that’s the movie I want to see.