Art as Justice in ‘A Wounded Fawn’
Writer and director Travis Stevens has added a breathtaking and opalescent jewel to his crown of unique projects with A Wounded Fawn, his third feature film. After making the rounds at various festivals it has carved itself a home at Shudder, and it will certainly stand out amongst the service’s other exclusive programming. This eclectic portrait of a serial killer oozes with bizarre charm, veers into the hallucinatory, and unrolls into a rich and inspired tapestry of surrealism to complement and challenge its characters’ wants & needs, as well as their fears.
A Wounded Fawn’s style is rooted in the marriage of the realistic and the surrealistic image. It owes its fantastical and otherworldly visuals to the work of the undersung genius of Leonora Carrington, who uses a number of religious, mythological and fantastical archetypes in her paintings’ humanoid (and otherwise) subjects. She was taken by the style of surrealism as much as she was a pioneer of it. But as a woman in the world of male-dominated art she was unwillingly labelled a muse and a wonder among the community. In her pursuit of the art Carrington was a staunch feminist through and through, and she did not stoop to the normative expectations of the men who admired her in this way. There are some heavy nods to Carrington’s work, style, and her long-lasting influences within the film, most notably in the naming of the chief antagonist Bruce Ernst (Josh Ruben), whose surname he shares with her first significant other, Max Ernst, a fellow surrealist.
In the film, Bruce is an art buyer who targets and kills other buyers that have what he wants. At the start of the film we see him auction hungrily for a statuette of The Wrath of the Erinyes, or the three Furies in Greek mythology, only to lose the bid to another collector’s employee. After tracking the employee down and murdering her, Bruce adds the piece to his collection, in a secluded woodland cabin he owns. The statuette of the three Furies are shown eviscerating a man of supposedly ill repute, having committed transgressions as monstrous as the shapes that hunt him as retribution. Of course the true monstrosity resides within the man, hidden and shuttered against the elements to help his dark appetites thrive in secret. But Bruce has a dark side that isn’t so secret from us viewers.
He invites a museum curator, Meredith Tanning (Sarah Lind), to spend an evening with him at his cabin on a romantic getaway date. Once she discovers what Bruce really is, Meredith ostensibly fills the role of victim and potential final girl within the horror archetypes in a more simplistic sense. But in the film’s spiritual approach she also represents Carrington herself. She fights to reclaim what was stolen from herself as well as victims past in property, dignity, and beyond. Her trajectory of revenge paints a terrifying picture for Bruce to face, in some ways literally. We spend the film firmly in his perspective, which is to say events are assumed to take place in a grounded world. But something in the distance threatens to rip away at his grasp on reality. Carrington’s treatment of reverence towards enigmatic and powerful figures is examined primarily through the mythological lens in Stevens’ film, some figures populated interchangeably by Meredith and Bruce’s past victims, while he remains constant as the man who perpetrated these brutal and vicious killings.
Meredith’s act of defense shatters Bruce’s ego, and over time his perception of events and supposed reality warps further into the depths of the art worlds he hides behind. Despite how A Wounded Fawn can fit neatly into the logline of “Patrick Bateman in the Evil Dead house,” it would be discrediting the smart way the film approaches art and its influence. The way it plays with lenses forms a complexity that enhances the simple nature of its bare bones framework. Without all the dressing it’s essentially a cat-and-mouse chase between Bruce and Meredith, as she struggles to escape the clutches of this killer who has never tasted defeat. The weaker Bruce gets the landscape of Carrington’s eye bleeds through his reality more, gaining strength until he can no longer discern which shapes exist and which are truly of his own mind’s construction. Unnamed and silent figures appear to him, challenging his composure and determination to kill. As each blow to his constitution & confidence drags him further down into the vibrant prison of his mind, he finds himself dominated by the dimensions of reality art replicates and betrays, especially in regards to surrealist thought. But standing above him in the carnage of his own making is Meredith, wearing a visage of vengeance, as Carrington would imagine it. It’s almost as if Carrington led production design from beyond the grave.
A Wounded Fawn is a surprisingly layered and distinctive approach that easily stands out against the many films about serial killers in the horror genre. None go so far as succeed as well as this does in a feminist lens while putting us in the head of the male transgressor. It fascinates by placing us in the headspace of a villain which is usually perceived to be the more interesting side of good & evil, despite the obvious moral objections we have with their ultimate decisions to kill, maim, or rule. But for the meat of the film the only other true character is Meredith, whom we know is the victim and root for although we ride on the shoulders of Bruce through his throes of hallucinatory battles of the nobles and nightmare creatures Carrington & Meredith conjure actively and passively to balance the scales. It’s a wonderfully bloody, funny, and trippy jaunt through invented dimensions of reality and unreality. Be sure to check this one out.
A Wounded Fawn premieres on Shudder on Thursday, December 1st.