If morality-minded Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi produced an adaptation of a James Patterson potboiler, it might look a lot like Holy Spider.
Hailing from Iranian director / co-writer Ali Abbasi (Border), the film adapts the true story of Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), a serial murderer known as the Spider Killer who targeted female sex workers in Mashhad, Iran, in 2000 and 2001. At the time, Abbasi was baffled by a conservative consensus on Hanaei’s crimes that lionized and lifted up his vicious violence as he justified it — a righteous, religious duty to purge the profane in alignment with Islamic teaching. If these women “chose” this degradation, these people believed they deserved such a fate.
Holy Spider certainly communicates the manner in which Iran’s curdled culture and craven codification of faith contributed to a lack of urgency to apprehend Hanaei. (It also casts considerable doubt on Hanaei’s claim that killing afforded him no psychological kick, expressed even by how he disposes of an apple.) Whether those forces secretly support him — or if he is a cog in a conspiracy of multiple murderers — are theories investigated by Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a composite-character journalist whom Abbasi has created from whole cloth.
After rumors of social impropriety run her out of Tehran, Rahimi arrives in Mashhad to write about the Spider Killer. There have been no clues to his identity for six months, or at least that’s the convenient explanation for his continued exploits. He has also been regularly phoning Rahimi’s new colleague, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), telling him where the victims’ bodies can be found and insisting he is not a murderer but a soldier in a holy war. Rahimi is eager to engender more pressure on clerics and police to apprehend the Spider Killer, but the only way may be to endanger herself by concealing a knife in her chador and imitating a sex worker.
Having written drafts of Holy Spider 20 years ago, Abbasi says he sought to deliver something more than another story about the “different ways a man can kill and mutilate women.” Unfortunately for a film that seeks a tricky middle-ground between lamentation and exploitation, there is still quite a bit of such brutality in Holy Spider, from the leering nature of its initial image to numerous, intimate and brutal depictions of Hanaei’s multiple murders. Perhaps too much, given an imbalanced focus on Hanaei’s murderous, mostly monotonous POV over Rahimi as a proxy for perpetual prejudice against women who dare to assert their power. One of Hanaei’s older victims wearily, almost dutifully, hobbling onto the back of his scooter before her off-screen murder is also arguably more unnerving than any bloody beating or tight-shot strangulation.
Thematically, Abbasi and co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami set up Holy Spider to explore vice as a universal Rosetta Stone. One great early moment finds Rahimi establishing detente by way of sharing a cigarette with a policeman named Rostami (Sina Parvaneh) — recognizing they are people in jobs of low respect and high expectation. It’s one of many small, evocative touches that helps the first act flourish; a sex worker sneaking a dab of fancy skin cream on her hand during a stolen moment alone in one of her brutish customers’ bathrooms also resonates.
Vice is currency, however infinitesimal. Currency is access, however incremental. Access will always cycle back to vice, often with increased consequence. Where Abbasi and co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami trip up is simply establishing that point early and repeating it ad infinitum. Holy Spider eschews more expansive, enveloping horrors of Zodiac or Memories of Murder for the type of procedural often found on primetime (however more politically charged).
With no fault to the lead actors, this approach also imposes limitations on them. Hanaei hails from a family of martyrs, and his survival of a war in which so many others perished has sent him into existential crisis to which murder is his response, incapable of otherwise ascribing any other value to his life. It’s an intriguing thread at which the screenplay rarely pulls, save a moment where an accidental soccer ball to Hanaei’s head initiates an outburst rooted in the imprecision of his own planned path in life. While Bajestani makes a suitable sociopathic foil, too much of the third act asks him to be less of a man monumentally misguided by cultural and religious expectations and more of a string-pulling manipulator a la Se7en’s John Doe.
Meanwhile, Ebrahimi was initially meant to only be Holy Spider’s casting director. But she took the role of Rahimi herself after another actress backed out, eventually winning the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Although Ebrahimi’s performance could in no way be considered bad, it is decidedly hampered, hindered and hemmed into a corner by the film’s conclusion. Rahimi’s scheme to draw out Hanaei happens early enough that the third act dramatizes the response to his reign of terror. It’s here that Holy Spider is most perilously straightforward. Instead of letting us see Rahimi confront encroaching rot head-on in a court of law, Abbasi confines her to a peanut gallery of pointing out what we see play out — as if several crucial scenes were cut there, and much earlier, in her odyssey toward a collision with Hanaei.
All of this pulls the punches on pyrrhic victories for both Rahimi (and, more perversely, Hanaei) in a way that keeps them from truly landing, despite a devastating final scene in which Holy Spider recognizes male violence as the hydra it is, powered by a perpetual devaluation of all life. It’s a conclusion that fits a serial-killer film for a post-truth world in which people can observe something so plainly unacceptable as cold-blooded murder and both-sides it with a straight face. And if you think that parallel only pertains to other lands, you aren’t paying attention.
There is much to recommend about Holy Spider but also much that restricts it. It’s hard to expect Rahimi to definitively draw a line in her reporting that separates factual verisimilitude from stylish fear-mongering when the film in which she’s featured can’t do the same.
Holy Spider screened at the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival. The film is scheduled to open in limited theatrical release on Friday, Oct. 28.