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Unabsolved Transgressions, Surrealism, and a Chorus of Furies: A Wounded Fawn (2022)

Travis Stevens’A Wounded Fawn (USA, 2022) is entirely my thing. It’s a nice mix of art house and genre, which is one of my favorite things. It blends fine art—in this case the art of Surrealists (and friends) Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna—1970s horror/giallo, Classical Greek tragedy, themes involving snakes and dogs, glorious art and costuming design, saturated colors, and excellent cinematography. It probably has too much gore for many art house audiences and too much looking at paintings and sculpture for a lot of horror fans. I love A Wounded Fawn and maybe even the vision of future movies of that it presents. In short, I would love more thoughtful, creative and fun films that consciously examine generic conventions. Films that playfully bend, blend, or even burst out of increasingly rigid generic film conventions and categorizations—and I don’t just mean “genre” film. I like a movie that sidesteps expectations of not only what a movie should be about, but how a movie should be about it. And A Wounded Fawn successfully makes a serial killer pathetic in comparison to his victims. 

If that all sounds intriguing to you, go see A Wounded Fawn. The rest of my piece, I’m discussing plot elements. If you see that more as spoilers than enticements and plan to see A Wounded Fawn, I hope you’ll come back to read the rest of my piece because I have things to say and I cannot wait a couple months to do it. But let’s scratch the surface, shall we?

~~~

A lot of the horror I like follows in the tradition of tragedy and A Wounded Fawn very much does. In fact, it follows particularly in the tradition of one of my favorite Classical Greek plays, Aeschylus’ The Eumenides (458 BCE), one of three plays making up the Oresteia, which concerns the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra, the subsequent murder of Clytemnestra by their son Orestes and all the subsequent fall out. The Eumenides means “the Kindly Ones.” It’s another name for the Erinyes (“Avengers”) or Furies, chthonic Greek goddesses of retribution and vengeance. Writer/ director Travis Stevens and co-writer Nathan Faudree include lines from Aeschylus’ play and the title comes from a line in The Eumenides,  but the fawn is not who you might expect in a slasher or giallo film.

A Wounded Fawn is explicitly divided into three acts, beginning with Bruce Ernst (Josh Ruben, playing a character named in part after Dada artist and Surrealist Max Ernst) at an auction, bidding on “The Wrath of the Erinyes,” a Hellenistic sculpture depicting the Furies tormenting a man, most likely Orestes after he has murdered his mother. The sculpture is made by an unknown artist.* In a room full of buyers on a variety of phones that would make any giallo art director happy, Bruce loses the auction to Kate Horna (named after the photographer/ Anarcha-Feminist Kati Horna and played by Malin Barr), a polished professional on a smartphone.

Bruce Ernst realizing he will not win this auction. Photo Credit: Shudder

As Kate celebrates in her home, Bruce appears at her door and tells her that he’s been authorized to make a better offer to her client, accepts her condition that she get a large percentage of his commission, and compliments her personal art collection. Earlier, the auctioneer (Neal Mayer) joked that the assembled buyers should be careful what they do in front of the sculpture lest they incur the Erinyes’ wrath, but Bruce is not careful at all. While Kate is on the phone with her client, Bruce kills her with an unusual weapon–claws he wears under his fingers. Perhaps he sees them as the talons of a bird, since before he kills Kate, Bruce sees a theriomorphic red owl (Marshall Taylor Thurman) that is equal parts Stage Fright (1987) and the art of Leonora Carrington.

In the second act, Meredith Tanning (played by Sarah Lind and probably named after an anagramatic Remedios Varo + fellow Surrealist Dorothea Tanning)** is feeling good after a successful therapy session where she says she’s learned “not to absolve a man for his transgressions against me.” Meredith meets up with her friends at the museum where she works at what appears to be an exhibit dedicated entirely to the Erinyes pursuing Orestes. It features paintings by John Singer Sargent, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Franz Von Stuck and, personally, I would have loved to attend. Is it thematically heavy-handed? It doesn’t matter–I don’t care! Meredith is going away for the weekend with Bruce, who she met in their overlapping art circles. Her friends want to meet him, but Meredith says he’s not “introduceable” yet.  She’s not sure how serious she is about him.

Meredith Tanning, looking sharp. Photo Credit: Shudder

Meredith dresses and packs carefully. She brings some music to share. Her overnight suitcase is fun and vintage. Bruce meanwhile has taken the kind of minimal effort that he clearly believes he should be rewarded for. On their way to the cabin, Bruce does and says some things that are off putting. It’s hard to say if they are doofusly off putting or dangerous off putting, but Meredith is clearly noting them even if Bruce doesn’t notice. He’s too excited at the prospect of his impending murder weekend. “This is my favorite part,” he tells Meredith. “The intimacy.” 

Bruce drops more and more of his facade as he gets closer to the fruition of his plan. He no longer carries Meredith’s bag. He hurries into the cabin without her. He eagerly awaits her compliments on his cabin–an exquisite mid-Century modern house with excellent art including what he claims is a reproduction of “The Wrath of the Erinyes.” He says the right things about how Meredith should relax while he cooks, but it feels like Bruce is just saying them to get what he wants. The dinner he prepares involves a pomegranate–ominous for both its bloody look on his cutting board and its hearkening back to the myth of Persephone.

But as Bruce blathers on about someone else’s culinary philosophy, he doesn’t get the compliments and attention he wants. Meredith is distracted and, like Persephone, barely eating. She’s seen a photo of Bruce’s girlfriend Leonora (played by Katie Kuang and named after Surrealist and Feminist Leonora Carrington), who Bruce will not talk about. She’s sent a photo of “The Wrath of the Erinyes” to her friend Wendy (Tanya Everett), asking if she remembers when their museum authenticated it. Something’s wrong and Meredith knows it. And it seems like something’s been trying to tell her something’s wrong, too. Meredith keeps seeing things and hearing voices. But Bruce doesn’t want to leave. He thinks Meredith is ruining their time together. He tries to silence her. He tries to guilt her. He tries to gaslight her. He suggests she’s imagining things. He tells her she’s being unreasonable. He accuses her of deliberately “fucking with” him when he starts to see the things she sees. Meredith tells him she wants to leave. And in the bathroom, Meredith talks to Wendy, who tells her to get out of the cabin because not only is the sculpture stolen, but that the buyer had been found murdered. Meredith puts on her domestic abuse survivor game face, but by then, Bruce has seen the Red Owl and attacks Meredith. She beats him with “The Wrath of the Erinyes.” And then A Wounded Fawn goes excellently surreal as the Erinyes come for Bruce in the form of Tisiphone the Punisher of Murderers / Meredith, Alecto the Unceasing / Kate, and Megara the Grudging as Bruce’s murdered girlfriend Leonora. They confront Bruce with what he has done. They confront him with who he is. They confront him with the women he has abused, murdered and stolen from. And that is tremendously appealing and powerful when so many abused, murdered and missing women get no justice at all.*** 

“ENTER THE CHORUS OF FURIES”

The costuming in this third act has the kind of eerieness that theatrical practical effects can have. The costume designs remind me of the ones artists created for the stage in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. And the Erinyes look very much look like they have walked off the canvasses of Carrington and Varo. As the Kindly Ones begin pursuing Bruce, I couldn’t help thinking, who’s running through the woods and fumbling with their keys now? We see Bruce’s fear and desperation. We see his alternating terror and self-delusion about his power. Bruce is the wounded fawn of the film: “For as a hound tracks a wounded fawn, so we track him by the drops of blood.” And the blood they track him by is not his, but the blood of the women he has murdered, no matter how vigorously he washes his hands after each killing.

Photo Credit: Shudder

This is more than a reversal of roles, as much as I enjoy those, and it’s not just a question of whether what is happening to Bruce is “real” or something he is imagining. Driving guilty men to madness and death is what the Erinyes do. Interpreting what is happening to Bruce as only in his head can make Meredith and the women Bruce killed metaphors for his personal struggle, which is how he thinks of them–when he thinks of them at all. For Bruce, the Red Owl is far more real than Meredith, Kate and Leonora. This is how he tries to control his story and resist what the Furies tell and do to him. As the Furies pursue him through the film, Bruce seems to go through the stages of grief Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identifies in dying people. But for Bruce, each stage is more deluded than the last. Bruce is trying to figure out the rules that will allow him to survive, but his understanding of what he has done and what is happening is too distorted. He cannot frighten the Erinyes with his own fury. He cannot pretend it’s not happening or refuse them their satisfaction. And when Bruce tries to bargain with them, he believes that if he gives back the sculpture, then the Erinyes will be satisfied. As if he had picked up a cursed object, rather than that he has cursed himself because he is, as the Furies repeatedly tell him, a thief and a murderer. 

The murdering part is self-evident, but his theft is not as simple as it first appears. Bruce did steal “The Wrath of the Erinyes.” I think he also stole the cabin and everything in it from Leonora. But his theft goes beyond these physical objects. I think Bruce has nothing that is his own from “The Wrath of the Erinyes” to the taste he displays in his cabin to his culinary theory. And Bruce resents the women he is attracted to for what they have–from the tangible things like art and cabins, to the intangible ones like taste, talent, business savvy, intellectual accomplishments,**** friendships, self-possession, comfort in their own damn selves, their self-knowledge and happiness. Bruce pretends at first that he is attracted to this in them. He might even briefly believe it, but I think that it makes him angry and he wants to destroy it. He is angry that they dare to feel what he doesn’t and to have success, taste, beauty, friendships, art, homes that he doesn’t.

Carrington’s “Operation Wednesday” (1969)

There is a bit of this envy and resentment earlier in the film with two middle-aged men at the Erinyes exhibit watching Meredith, Wendy and Julia (Laksmi Priyah Hedemark) as they laugh together about Meredith’s using up batteries in her vibrator. They see women happy and laughing and talking about taking care of their own needs, and it makes them angry, indicating an attitude that spreads beyond Bruce. I have heard this explanation before from men explaining other men’s trolling, harassment, catcalling and abuse. Seeing it in A Wounded Fawn in this extremity helps me grasp it even briefly. But again, Bruce is a thief of both the tangible and the intangible. And when Tisiphone in particular confronts him, he rejects and distances himself from the only thing that might be an authentic reflection on himself: his murderousness and the Red Owl.

I assume Bruce Ernst’s last name is a reference to Dada artist and Surrealist Max Ernst. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if Bruce’s first name is a reference to Bruce Campbell. There’s a smidge of Evil Dead II (1987) in A Wounded Fawn and the film has about as much respect for Bruce as Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have for Ash, played by Campbell in the Evil Dead films and television series. Like Ash, Bruce takes a lot of damage in his cabin in the woods. He argues with himself or his doppelgänger in his madness and, in the credits sequence, Bruce pulls his own version of Ash’s possessed hand attacking him. It would be a delightful mixture of influences to me if it’s the case. Regardless, both Max Ernst and Bruce Ernst have bird alter egos. Max Ernst’s alter ego, Loplop, was much more playful than the Red Owl and Ernst has a series of paintings presented by the bird.

“Loplop introduces Loplop” (1930)

The owl itself has a resonance beyond giallo and Ernst’s art. The owl was a symbol of Pallas Athena, a goddess born from Zeus’ forehead, in part to demonstrate to Hera that anything women could do, men could do better. Athena appears in The Eumenides as a kind of patron goddess of the patriarchy upholding a new law that places the importance of men’s lives over women’s lives. In A Wounded Fawn, the Red Owl appears before Bruce kills women, perhaps urging him to do so, perhaps merely condoning it. It is, at least according to Bruce, his misogyny made manifest and separate from him. 

MAKING THINGS RIGHT

“If you truly want to make things right, we’re going to have to have a conversation,” Tisiphone tells Bruce, wearing a Classical Greek theatrical mask with snakes twining around her. “I was never planning on killing you,” Bruce says. “It was nothing personal.” Like she should not be offended. Like no one should be. Bruce even confirms that it’s not Meredith’s fault, nothing she’s done. It’s not personal. If it wasn’t her, it would be someone else. Like no one is a murderer and therefore no one is murdered. Things just happen and it’s all someone else’s fault. Bruce distances himself from killing, claiming it’s some part of him that is not him that is responsible. And when he pulls what he says that part out of himself, it’s a dying, fetal bird. 

I appreciate that A Wounded Fawn makes an effort to rethink and escape some of the forms of serial killer and slasher stories. A Wounded Fawn focuses squarely on Bruce as the problem rather than on the women he kills as having made “mistakes” or been “stupid.”  After the conversation in the bathroom where Wendy confirms that Bruce is dangerous, Meredith talks to Bruce as if things are normal, and looking into the mirror, breathes deeply and prepares herself to navigate the situation as best she can and get out somehow. This is paralleled in a later scene where Bruce gives himself a much more deluded pep talk to try to maintain his sense that he is in control and not in danger. It’s refreshing to not only see female characters with situational awareness, but those women making calculations on the fly. There are very few completely safe situations and situational awareness is all about making constant subconscious assessments while navigating everyday situations that are probably fine but can turn awful.*** Throughout the first and second acts, we see Kate and Meredith actively considering if Bruce is thoughtless or a danger. The women of A Wounded Fawn are more believable to me than so many of the innocent, naïve and oblivious women populating not just horror but so much fiction, even realistic or naturalistic fiction. In the real world, women are very rarely unaware of the dangers of the world, but in film they are rarely aware of them.*** I suppose it’s a reflexive narrative or some people really want to believe in that kind of innocence. I suspend my disbelief to enjoy those stories, too, but I really appreciate A Wounded Fawn being grounded in this kind of emotional and psychological lived reality while giving us such an amazingly Surreal third act.

In A Wounded Fawn, Bruce is the one making what would be mistakes in more orthodox horror. He is the one who does not consider that he could be in danger. He attacks Kate, someone he can be tied to. He steals a valuable antiquity he was seen publicly bidding on. He kills her while she is on her phone in her home calling the very people she bought the sculpture for. In the cabin, Bruce keeps not only evidence of Leonora, but evidence that he was destroying evidence of their life together. And while he pretended to the Erinyes that he never planned to kill Meredith, he attacked when her friends knew she was with him and he should know they know she is with him. Meredith never loses cell service. She never loses her phone. She never even loses contact with her friends, who do check in with her. The truth is–and the real life horror is–men like Bruce don’t need to be smart to get away with murdering women.*** Bruce might be mediocre, but he does well enough socially and murderously to get by. And Bruce is so used to getting away with his crimes and the bare minimum of effort–even while he feels clever–that he is unprepared when the Erinyes come for him.

I said before that A Wounded Fawn is not really a reversal of the serial killer or slasher story. It’s more turning one inside out. While Meredith and the other female characters are well-done, with a believable caution and situational awareness, Bruce is the wounded fawn of the title. His envy, his sense of his own weakness, his emptiness, his self-involvement, his self-delusion are the focus rather than Meredith, Kate, or Leonora’s lack of care in keeping themselves safe. His chosen weapon, the metal talons he wears, might be cool in a different film. Shih Kien definitely wears some sweet claws well in Enter The Dragon (1973). And god knows they’d work in a ninja movie or a duel in the 1970s Lone Wolf & Cub film series. Leaving the 1970s for the 2010s, I can see an episode of Hannibal dedicated to the Red Owl where the claws and the Red Owl costume would be presented as an artistic vision of a genius serial killer. But not with Bruce. The Red Owl is an elegant creation, reminiscent of Ernst, Carrington and Varo. The claws are interesting, but with Bruce the claws are also incongruous–as if he were showing them off on his red-pilled Twitch or YouTube stream. The claws are an attempted and failed display of identity. In fashion terms, the claws are wearing Bruce, not the other way around.

Meredith and her friends. Note the snake print!

This can’t be said of any of the female characters who wear amazing, character-revealing outfits whether in professional environments, at a museum with friends, or embodying chthonic goddesses of wrathful retribution. The women are not necessarily comfortable in the world. Kate, Meredith and Wendy show that they are aware of potential threats to them, but they are comfortable in themselves. Bruce is not any of these things–not even in a world set up for someone as middling as him to compete with someone as clearly good at her job as Kate, to have a relationship with Leonora, to go on taco dates with Meredith, and to kill person after person despite barely taking any precautions at all. Afterward murdering and stealing from women, Bruce pretends he has collected whatever they have that he doesn’t and is sated for a while. Everything Bruce has is not just stolen, but pretense. Even his claws.

A Wounded Fawn has made me see a serial killer in a way no other serial killer story has. Bruce reminds me not only of Ash from The Evil Dead, but William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo (1996). Like Ash and Jerry, Bruce is an incredibly destructive nebbish. And I never expected an artful, giallo-inflected horror movie to make me see a serial killer as an incredibly destructive and pathetic nebbish. But A Wounded Fawn has. Bruce cannot make anything right. He was a fool to think he could, not just because the Erinyes won’t be appeased, but because what he has done cannot be made right. But Bruce is so certain that what is happening is about him and not about the women he has killed that he actually thanks the Kindly Ones. He can’t or won’t understand that the Erinyes are there to avenge the women he has killed and stolen from. He wants to believe that they are a his guides on a journey of self-discovery. He tells them that they purified and saved him and that he will go on to a new life as a new man once the sun rises. And so Bruce dies like an asshole, flopping in the mud beside his victims’ graves, dressed in a chiton made from a bedsheet and stabbing himself in the neck as Meredith watches. What should be horrific is humorously pathetic. And Pallas Athena does not intervene on his behalf. 

*The sculptor is Charles Becker, and I appreciate the film for crediting him, the models for the work and the other artists whose work is displayed in the film. Actor Sarah Lind (Meredith / Tisiphone) was a model for one of the Furies in the sculpture.

**’Meredith’ as an anagram via Castellano Spanish as a nod to Remedios Varo having been born in Spain.

***Because Bruce targets women specifically, I talk about women here, but this is true of Trans folk and nonbinary people as well. 

****I would happily read Meredith’s thesis on deconstructing the Muse and the disappearance of female artists.

~~~

There is another version of this piece that focuses on the art history and touches on The Eumenides, but meanwhile: Out of your living marrow Carol Borden will drain / a red libation, out of your veins she will suck her food, / Her raw, brutal cups— / Wither you alive.

Carol also received a review copy of A Wounded Fawn.

This piece first appeared in a slightly different form on Monstrous Industry.

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