SAN ANTONIO — The serial killer dies at the end of “A Wounded Fawn.”
I know, I know. Before you protest that potential spoiler, hear me out: the serial killer, the primary antagonist, dies in a finale so stunningly clarifying and fiendishly funny that you really shouldn’t be all that worried that I just spoiled things for you. Because this is a movie anchored more firmly in how it is about something rather than what it’s actually about, “A Wounded Fawn” encourages the viewer, in smart and largely satisfying ways, to take into account the filmmaking craft that forms its foundations.
I don’t mean to work my way backwards to talk about “A Wounded Fawn,” a horror movie that puts genre parameters on a slippery slope. But the film almost demands it. Writer-director Travis Stevens’s dynamic and doom-landed third feature steadily unloosens the thematically knotty concepts of modern horror for 90 minutes before suddenly tightening its own, with the force of a snapping bone. You’re beckoned to rethink what you’ve seen from the very start, in a way that might cause you to think to yourself, “So this is where the real movie begins,” and in such a fashion that echoes the visceral conclusion of “Saint Maud.”
Like that 2020 movie, “A Wounded Fawn” is best watched in a packed house, where the gradual shifting of a full audience’s response to a movie as amorphous as this almost becomes a part of the atmosphere around you. Things start out uneasily enough as we watch a serial killer, Bruce (Josh Ruben), bait an art evaluator in her own home before unceremoniously offing her. That dramatic tension sustains itself as we watch him entrap another victim, Meredith (Sarah Lind), in the guise of a romantic getaway. If we spend the movie’s first half waiting for the bloodletting to come, its second cauterizes those wounds with a medley of gorgeously brash filmmaking as external forces interrupt the serial-killer party with the primal ferocity of revenge.
Or do they? At first bloody blush, “A Wounded Fawn” is a committed throwback to the ghoulishly bold colors and uneasy rhythms of 1980s horror, its narrative as straightforward as can be. What transpires in its later sequences, though, pits us against our own assumptions (and Bruce’s against his), carving up the movie’s established reality through psychedelic flourishes and hellish imagery. It isn’t all in the name of pretention, however, though pretention might be all that avant-garde-averse audiences are likely to see. But we can look to Bruce’s feigned fascinations with art for a clue as to what Stevens and cowriter Nathan Faudree might be saying about how toxic masculinity is its own intellectual prison.
For all its yestercentuy pastiching, “A Wounded Fawn” blends together some much more recent genre-film flavors, particularly the meet-cute-nightmare premise of “Fresh” and the scene-to-scene unpredictability of “Barbarian.” That those two movies are on opposite ends of the quality spectrum for 2022 horror may provide a hint as to this movie’s own strange trajectory; indeed, the way it flips from straightforward thrills to warped-reality freakout makes for a deliciously disorienting swerve.
While not binded together in the most elegant of ways, that interplay between the cerebral and the purely shocking creates momentum for Stevens’ increasingly surreal nightmare, and motivates the viewer to pursue their own conclusions about where reality ends and mania begins. There will almost certainly, too, be those who accuse Stevens of embracing the same kind of ideas-forward horror filmmaking that he’s ostensibly criticizing, though “A Wounded Fawn” is spry enough that it becomes worth wondering whether the movie is indeed condemning the kind of so-called pretentious, A24-associated horror dominating Twitter discourse today, or celebrating it.
Regardless of your view, “A Wounded Fawn” is timely, arriving at a time when it can weaponize those conversations as they continue apace. But taken on its own merits, it’s a wily and often euphorically conceived movie that, once the aesthetic contours finally stop slipping through our fingers, becomes its own kind of performance art.
"A Wounded Fawn" is not rated. It's now streaming on Shudder. Runtime: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
Starring Sarah Lind, Josh Ruben, Malin Barr, Katie Kuang
Directed by Travis Stevens; written by Stevens and Nathan Faudree