‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine… ‘men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.’
‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said.
I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed.’ Margaret Atwood, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982
A WOUNDED FAWN is a reckoning with this very topic. Women will quite often, especially those who have been victimized before, feel apprehension or outright fear at the prospect of dating a new man or being intimate with them. Women and girls learn early and usually in the most unpleasant of ways that not all men and boys are to be trusted. Women and girls learn early on that they are looked on as sport by some men and boys. As prey to be hunted and turned into a trophy, their innocence or their bodies pelts to be nailed to someone’s wall and displayed for other men to snigger at and envy. Sometimes it is just on a personal list of women that were shown who was boss and left damaged or, at worst because this does happen in real life, dead.
A wounded fawn: sometimes a woman who simply wants to be loved and desperately wants to trust who’s been hurt before. Her skin, warm with particles of the blood of her previous wounds, gives off the scent of the easy victim to those predators who roam our land.
The synopsis is as follows: Meredith is finally ready to get back on the dating scene following an abusive relationship and its many emotional scars. Through some coaxing by her friends, she agrees to take a weekend trip with Bruce, a charming and seemingly harmless new potential beau. At first, everything seems perfect—Bruce’s private home in the woods is an art-deco wonder, and he’s as funny and warm as she’d hoped he’d be. There’s just one big problem: The real Bruce, the one behind those fake smiles and pleasantries, is a mentally unhinged serial killer, guided by horrific imaginary demons and armed with a unique and intimate murder weapon. But once Meredith realizes his actual motives, Bruce’s plans get more than a bit complicated.
What Travis Stevens and his co-writer Nathan Faudree, who I believe originated the script, have done is build a narrative where nearly every fear that every woman has had at one point or another about the man that she’s trying to date has ever had. One of the biggest strengths of having these two write this piece is that not only do they have a pretty good handle on respectfully writing the lead female characters, but they also have drawn a bead on the character of Bruce. They understand Bruce’s banal evil so well, and it truly is banal, that he’s completely believable and so disturbing. The fusion of the script, direction, and actor in the wordless scene where Bruce stares at The Red Owl is a pièce de résistance. It’s the same when the Tisiphone rises in front of the flowing curtains in the woods. It’s the same when Alecto writhes sensually on top of an object you’re just going to have to see to believe.
As the two lead characters, Sarah Lind and Josh Ruben have done excellent work. I’m not as familiar with Sarah’s work, but she is so vulnerable. Her emotions radiate through her translucent skin and you can feel her like the titular wounded fawn. Even though she’s been through a rough time with an abusive ex, you can still feel her need to love, to be whole again, and to trust one more time. It’s a heartbreaker of a performance and that’s just the first half. Meredith’s character is also a cinematic example of how vulnerability and kindness don’t mean weakness. Meredith is a gentle and good soul, but with earthy needs and a powerful swing.
I could rewrite the apocryphal version of Atwood saying in this instance and it would say: Men repress their feelings but women go to therapy.
Josh Ruben has one-upped himself with his performance of Bruce. Ruben uses his expansive charm to hide the character’s lack of a soul. It’s just what a man like Bruce would do to lure his victims. At first, you can see what attracted Meredith to this guy, but as A WOUNDED FAWN progresses, and in one isolated scene, in the beginning, you can see the rot just underneath the surface. The character’s non-development is bookended by one phrase that he says twice. “It’s beautiful and they [I] want it.” You can tell that it’s a line that he’s worked more than once. It’s practiced and studied through use. When he says “they want it,” he really means that he wants it. It’s a seduction technique.
His gaze at the other character, Malin Barr’s Kate Horna, says that too. It’s that overly piercing, direct stare. He knows exactly what he needs to say and do to get what he wants and he has absolutely no qualms about his manipulation of Horna or the situation. The character is really something of a revelation in different ways. The character shows exactly how far men will go to win or get what they want in the moment. It’s not really about the object or the woman. It’s about ownership and claiming victory, usually over a woman. Love and desire aren’t even a consideration. It’s about winning. Just what he wins isn’t clear, but that feeling of showing a woman up is all that matters to him.
The two leads have chemistry and are believable as a potential couple which is something that not all films get right. You have to believe that they actually could date each other for this to work and you can see that tenuous connection. It is to the actor’s credit that they were able to make and work with that connection to make the audience believe it.
All of the roles are very well cast and there isn’t a bad or mediocre performance in the lot. Neal Mayer’s acerbic auctioneer is engaging in the very first moment of A WOUNDED FAWN. Malin Barr (Honeydew, The Beta Test) takes command as an art buyer while Leandro Taub (Endless Poetry) is far more mysterious. Marshall Taylor Thurman portrays the inscrutable The Red Owl while Nikki James (“Ugly Betty”) is the sad but wise The Therapist. Tanya Everett (Without Scars) and Laksmi Hedemark (In The Room) portray Wendy and Julia, Meredith’s fun and caring friends. Wrapping this cast is Katie Kuang (“Westworld”) as the lost Leonora, glimpsed mainly through a photograph.
Another thing that I have to talk about is the actors’ performances in masked costumes. All of the actors who are in those devilishly ornate costumes deserve praise for their performances which do the one thing that is necessary while wearing one of these costumes. Most people assume that the costume is what makes this kind of role scary or eerie, but they are wrong. What really matters is the performer within the suit. Without an actor giving a hell of performance within that suit or behind that mask, it won’t have the impact needed to make the movie work. Everyone who works in costume did a great job. The Red Owl is fascinating, the goddesses Tisiphone (vengeful destruction), Megaera (jealous rage), and Alecto (endless anger) or The Erinyes aka The Furies are powerful and indefatigable. Having been summoned, they won’t let the malefactor escape.
Men are taught to be victors and women are taught to obey.
The costumes are beautiful and full of darkness. For his first feature as a costume designer, Erik Bergrin did a wonderful job, especially with the mask of Tisiphone, The Red Owl, and Megaera. All are splendid and intricate works. The score by Vaaal (Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying) is otherworldly with swelling synths and chanted vocals without specific words. The most traditional them within the score is in the opening scene, a tense accompaniment to the auction scene. But the querulous Red Owl theme and the chimerical theme of the Erinyes, all percussion that starts as isolated bangs that resolve into a female voice vocalizing into a fuller choir. The Erinyes theme even includes some of the sound design as the music is swelling as the temple flags of the goddesses of vengeance flutter in the wind.
The cinematographer, who does fantastic work with low light photography in the second act is Ksusha Genenfeld. The levels of darkness in the forest scenes and in the house after the lights go out. There are a lot of close-up shots and insert shots used to create feelings of unease, tension, and attention to detail. It’s almost as if these shots are telling you, to pay attention.
A WOUNDED FAWN does have bright flashes of colored light and images that aren’t exactly strobes but are violent intrusions into the main narrative. People with light sensitivity might want to be cautious, but these images are shocking and really add to the tension in the film.
The film has a very definite Act One and Act Two. Act One is the much more conventional story of a woman’s dating life as a horror film and then A WOUNDED FAWN flips over into the phantasmagorical country of terror and retribution. Writer-director Travis Stevens and co-writer Nathan Faudree put Bruce under the electron microscope and the picture that we get isn’t good. Stevens has really gone for the gusto as a director with A WOUNDED FAWN. As a man, he shows the character of Bruce no mercy. Usually, even during films where a man is shown in his worst light, there is usually a moment where the audience is allowed to sympathize with the male character through a tragic backstory or another cinematic ploy. Not here.
Stevens’ leadership in Act Two and the tonal shift play into the idea, which is frequently thrown into women’s faces during arguments, that when women are emotional, especially if they are angry, they are crazy. Meredith and the Erinyes are figures of righteous vengeance who are fully in control of the situation.
They aren’t crazy. They’re filled with fury and they are devoted to putting a stop to Bruce’s evil. He must atone. That’s where this film is really different. This is vengeance that seeks to end the evil. It’s not about killing the villain. It’s about showing him what he really is and giving him a taste of true madness that will only end when he admits and accepts what he’s done. When he atones for his evil.
THE ERINYES (Furies) were three goddesses of vengeance and retribution who punished men for crimes against the natural order. They were particularly concerned with homicide, unfilial conduct, offenses against the gods, and perjury. A victim seeking justice could call down the curse of the Erinys upon the criminal…The wrath of the Erinyes could only be placated with the rite of ritual purification and the completion of some task assigned for atonement.
This is a particularly splendid way to approach the story and the character of Bruce. I know from personal experience that men like Bruce hate to be confronted with their own actions and will deny it even if you hold the evidence in their faces. In fact, it makes these types of men viciously angry when they are confronted by a woman with the truth. It’s also important that Bruce is named a murderer and a thief. The script and the film make the point that what men like Bruce steal from women is their lives, everything that they are, and everything that they could be. Bruce takes their property and their lives and dumps them in his private dumping ground. It’s about his supremacy and his control over women and Bruce refuses to take responsibility for that by creating The Red Owl, a hallucination that commands him to kill.
The most chilling part of the film’s impact is just how ordinary many of Bruce’s urges really are and how common they are among men. When Bruce starts dismissing Meredith’s feelings and needs for his wants and needs, it’s a red flag that he’s not what was advertised. When he starts getting angry at her because of her discomfort with the frightening things that start happening, his mask is starting to melt off his face. The film has many small moments that could serve as a handbook of what to look out for when getting to know a man. One of them that is critical is how Bruce’s nose gets out of joint when Meredith tells him about her thesis: deconstructing the myth of the muse and the erasure of women artists. You can see the flicker of contempt, like a shadow of a bird of prey, pass over his features. It’s like suddenly he’s turned off because she has strong opinions about gender in art. It’s great work from the actors, writers, and director in the scene.
One of the other fantastic features of the film is that it is driven by the power of women. Our patriarchal society is set up to teach women that they are weak and emotionally insecure and that we need men to keep us safe. What A WOUNDED FAWN says, like community organizers around the country have been saying, is WE KEEP US SAFE. It shows the importance of female friendships and also the power and strength that women have. It’s a misnomer that women are “the weaker sex”. It’s our patriarchal society that has told us that we are weaker. We don’t have to accept that. It is by joining hands with other women and men who understand that we can defeat the monsters roaming the countryside.
The film has an aspect that is very much in the realm of theatre. There is darkly gorgeous imagery of a panel of cloth rising and falling on the wind almost as if it was alive that reminds me of theatrical productions. The masks and costumes of the deities are very theatrical. One of the things that I love about the second act, and yes, the concept of acts in a story is very theatrical as well, is that it commits so fervently to its fever dream status. One of the punishments of the Erinyes is that they curse evildoers with madness and the second half is as if Bruce has gone completely mad. He’s being swamped by savage hallucinations that appall even him, a serial killer. It shows Bruce that he is not in control, at all. These wild goddesses have taken over and he can’t do a thing to stop them. Tisiphone’s questioning and insistence on Bruce admitting and taking responsibility for his evil show exactly how weak he really is.
As I mentioned before, trying to make these type of men admit their wrongdoing and face up to their crimes makes them livid. They would rather do anything else than admit what they know is the truth. It’s because, in their mind, they don’t have any responsibility to women and women have no right to hold them accountable. That’s what makes them really angry. That a woman would dare question their truthfulness. Bruce would rather die than take responsibility for his actions which is true weakness.
A WOUNDED FAWN is a marvelous blast of realistic thrills and a hallucinatory and mythical blood-soaked fantasy about women’s power, men’s weakness, and righteous justice. Filled with excellent performances, great writing and direction, gorgeous cinematography, costuming, and music, it is the greatest achievement of director Travis Stevens yet and the finest acting work from the lead actors to date. Phantasmagorical and brilliant, it wields the power of women as the goddesses that they are.
A WOUNDED FAWN had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Shudder in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand in late 2022.