Holy Spider review: a cynical, unsatisfying thriller

Playing fast and loose with the facts of a real-life early-2000s killing spree, director Ali Abbasi attempts in vain to critic-proof his latest, suffocatingly unpleasant film.

6 September 2022

By Adam Nayman

Zar Amir Ebrahimi as Rahimi in Holy Spider (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

“Every man shall meet what he wishes to avoid,” reads an epigraph at the outset of Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider. It’s a scriptural warning that resonates on two levels. Within the greyed-out onscreen world of this studiously grim thriller – which dramatises (and strategically fabricates) details of a much-publicised early-2000s killing spree in the city of Mashhad, Iran – the quote draws a bead on the lethal anxieties of Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), a family man whose fear and loathing of women and female sexuality compels him to clandestinely solicit and then dispatch prostitutes in the name of religious purity. But it’s also applicable to potential viewers who’ve grown sceptical of (or exasperated at) the ways in which sensational material can give licence to a saleably prurient yet critically bulletproof form of transnational filmmaking. Cannes hype and laurels notwithstanding, anybody in this category is advised to steer clear.

Directorial virtuosity in the service of true-crime subject matter is nothing new, of course, and the director and distributors of Holy Spider would surely welcome the comparisons to Zodiac (2007) and Memories of Murder (2003) their movie seems to be angling for. The opening sequence, which tracks a lonely, meth-addicted prostitute on her nightly rounds through the so-called “city of martyrs” in a series of long takes before she’s picked up by Saeed – introduced as a faceless cipher on a motorcycle – generates the requisite stomach-churning dread; there’s even a cutaway to TV coverage of the September 11 attacks, which functions as both chronological marker and metaphysical signpost, a signal of lofty artistic intentions. But where Fincher and Bong’s ingeniously conceived docudramas kept wringing formal and tonal variations on such scenarios (and smartly limited their respective predators’ screen time), Abbasi harps determinedly on the same note. By the third or fourth time we see Saeed at work, luring “corrupt women” into the apartment he shares with the pious young wife and children he’s safely stashed elsewhere for the night, the effect is less horrifying than numbing, a fine but crucial distinction that points towards a well-made film’s overall failure.

The obvious justification for such relentless, suffocating unpleasantness is a sort of it-is-what-it-is-realism – the idea that it’s impossible to productively depict evil by sanitising or occluding it, so everything should be on the table, representationally speaking. This would be fine, except that Holy Spider plays so loosely with the facts of the case, whipping up a crusading Tehran-based journalist heroine, Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), that the quasi-forensic “authenticity” of the murder scenes, which linger on sad, brutal physical details (cracked teeth; smeared lipstick; a bare foot exposed post-mortem) seems cruelly beside the point. Even in its most harrowing moments, the film feels like it’s making a one-eye-on-the-audience calculation.

Ebrahimi, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year, is a galvanising presence, and Rahimi’s character is, dramaturgically speaking, a useful invention: a character who can dispense exposition, navigate the local landscape, and serve as a sounding board for all manner of institutional and individual misogyny (up to and including a white-knuckle fictional confrontation with the Spider himself). She’s also cosmopolitan, progressive, and relatable in a way that shifts the focus away from the victims – compassion and solidarity metastasised into simple, audience-flattering pity. Rahimi’s scenes, interspersed at regular intervals to create a procedural structure, shoehorn a heroic arc into a largely abject narrative.

Not that Abbasi doesn’t plunge headlong into abjection – all the better to give his quasi-exploitation movie a righteous raison d’etre. In Holy Spider’s final section, the genre tropes switch from those of serial-killer thriller to those of high-stakes legal drama, with Saeed’s seeming vindication in the court of public opinion – he is cheered on as a righteous vigilante by members of his community – doubling as an indictment of a larger, punitively gendered national ideology. (His biggest fan and truest believer is his pre-adolescent son.) If these scenes achieve the desired head-shaking, tongue-clucking effect, they’re also played so broadly as social commentary that they’re hard to believe on a line-by-line, moment-to-moment basis (though Bajestani, who underplays throughout, is excellent at modulating Saeed’s delusions of grandeur, especially behind closed doors). The coda, which drifts even further from Fincher and Bong towards the grainy, self-conscious multimedia provocations of Michael Haneke, is an example of Abbasi at his most shameless. He’s reaching as far and hard as he can for a heightening, powerful effect instead of trusting the story he’s already told – maybe for good reason.