‘Holy Spider’ Review: Ali Abbasi's Iranian True Crime Procedural Underwhelms [Cannes]

A drastic departure from his prior films “Border” and “Shelley,” Ali Abbasi’s newest film, “Holy Spider,” draws inspiration from the 2000-2001 crimes and subsequent trial of Saeed Hanaei (played here by Mehdi Bajestani), a war veteran-turned-serial killer in the Iranian city of Mashhad who murdered 16 sex workers, claiming that he was cleansing the holy city of sinners and corruption in the name of Islam. Rather than sticking entirely to the facts of the events, Abbasi decides to introduce a fictional character into the mix whose perspective on the story adds another layer to the narrative. This character is Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a Tehran-based journalist who travels to Mashhad in order to report on the man dubbed the “Spider Killer” and uncover the killer’s identity. Distrusting of the police, she takes matters into her own hands and teams up with local crime reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), and goes to great lengths to ensure that he gets punished for his crimes. 

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Hanaei goes out every few nights on his motorcycle and scans the street until picking a target, luring her into the living room of the home he shares with his wife Fatima (Forouzan Jamshidnejad) and two kids. He then suffocates his victims with their headscarves, ultimately dumping their bodies at the same hillside location each time. His ability to go undetected for a long span of time is a result of the religious police’s lack of care into investigating the acts of someone who is making their work easier, as well as the widespread support from members of the public who also believe that these “worthless” women were deserving of what they got, including his own son, Ali (Mesbah Taleb), who idolizes him and enthusiastically details and demonstrates his father’s method of killing for an interview in a haunting epilogue. 

Opening with the grim murder of a single mother, these brutal strangulations are graphically depicted a  handful of times afterwards, to the point that it no longer serves the purpose of simply portraying his actions but becomes a fetishization of violence towards female sex workers under the guise of bringing awareness. As the film enters its second half, transitioning from a cat-and-mouse thriller to a more formulaic procedural, it becomes apparent that Abbasi is more interested in playing it safe by focusing on the killer, his life and family, and his motivations for the murders as opposed to the lasting impact of his actions and his countless victims, who function as props for a story that ultimately doesn’t care enough about women as much as it claims to. Witnessing the brutalization of women multiple times in scenes that span lengthy periods of time, especially when based on true events, with close-ups that focus on the face of each woman as Hanaei kills them, is uncomfortable and gratuitous. The only aspect that Abbasi manages to do well is humanize each woman, introducing them before they come across Hanaei rather than immediately thrusting them into the film without any background.

As a straight-forward thriller, “Holy Spider” checks off all the boxes that make it an intriguing watch: it maintains a tense tone and has a gripping plot, it transforms into a courtroom drama halfway into its run, and features gritty and stylish visuals. It’s inevitable that Abbasi’s film will be compared to the works of David Fincher due to its daring approach to the genre. The performances from both leads are fantastic, bringing depth to their respective characters that helps convey the two perspectives on this story, even if Ebrahimi’s Rahimi isn’t very well-developed. 

For the most part, “Holy Spider” is an engrossing thriller that succeeds at not losing steam when focusing on those genre elements. Abbasi intended for it to be an unconventional film that exposes the patriarchal beliefs that are deeply ingrained in Iran, but that doesn’t necessarily mean incorporating an abundance of gruesome scenes that don’t provide any new substance beyond the first time. Its biggest failure, however, is boiling down a true story that is related to various issues — from class to the patriarchy to religion — in order to make a crowd-pleasing, conventional film. [B-]

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