My first film of this, the 58th Chicago International Film Festival was A Wounded Fawn and it was quite the way to start my festival experience. A Wounded Fawn is a 16mm shot nightmare of a film, dripping with style and thoughtful staging. While creating a space for some classic archetypes, both from history and popular horror, the film manages to surprise again and again with the places it is willing to go and the images it has for you. While not necessarily a gore fest, it effectively uses violence and shock to tell a resonating fairy tale that is no less impactful for its heavy use of fantasy elements. It is at times disturbing and at other beautiful, but always with an eye to communicate a specific perspective, and injecting an otherwise unsettling film with a surprising amount of surreal humor.
This film was directed, co-written, and produced by Travis Stevens, a man with an extensive and recognizable production career. As a director he will likely be known for Jakob’s Wife and The Girl on the Third Floor. A Wounded Fawn was, for me, far more effective than these films, though I did find myself endlessly charmed by Jakob’s Wife. A Wounded Fawn deals similarly with themes of patriarchy and abuse that one finds in Steven’s other two films, but also brings in elements of mythology and antiquity that both obscure and explain the proceedings. There is something epic in the telling of this story even if the production itself is of a smaller scale. What is, at essence, a personal struggle against violence, misogyny, and personal demons, is imbued with the drama of the ages. What is more, in comparison to The Girl on the Third Floor, A Wounded Fawn has characters that are given, even within the relatively compact script, room and space to breath and be. They feel fully realized despite the film moving quickly from setup to danger. Even more, this film looks amazing. Shooting on 16mm gives the film the sort of grainy warmth you might expect but it is not that alone, the art direction and set design also add to the haunting nightmare nature of the film and leave a lasting impression.
A Wounded Fawn begins as something very akin to other horror films. Someone is lured into danger, a trap is sprung, and a victim takes flight. However, the film soon complicates those expectations. It becomes an exploration of violence, revenge, masculinity, and even mental health issues. The is a resonance between the stories we tell now to ring fear in our hearts, and the ideas and legends of ancient peoples who longed for justice and believed in the most vicious of retributions. The film though is not what you might call overly serious. Yes, it is shot through with a sense that something monumental is happening with the framework of this smaller story. It does not fail though to add a kind of smirk to the proceedings, a sense that the surreal and the ridiculous is present even in the most deadly of circumstances. This balance, between the heaviness and the humor can only be carried by careful direction and brilliant performances. There are a number of strong supporting actors in this, but the film is sold by Sarah Lind and Josh Ruben. I was relatively ignorant as to the dramatic work of both of these actors prior to this film, though I have seen Ruben on Dropout comedic shows many times. After this I would like to see more from both, as each bring what they need to in order to make such a delicate mixture fly.
Perhaps the place where the film is asking the most of its audience is in some of the shifts the film makes structurally throughout its narrative. At this early date it would be irresponsible to explore these too explicitly and this risks spoilers. All I will say is that there are surprises that some may find frustrating or incongruent, but for me I LOVED them. Not all of the narrative shifts were full surprises, but the film had enough delightful and upsetting surprises both that I was on the edge of my seat for most of the run time. I was not as scared by some things as I would have preferred, but that level of fear is rare for me now after years of subjecting myself to cinematic terrors. I think uncomfortable, surprised, and delighted are more often the best I can hope for, and I did experience that quite a few times.
If I were to level any specific critiques against the film they are two, and one is of no real matter to me. This was not a high budget production from what I can tell, and at a few times those seams were showing, as some of the special effects were not as tight as they could be. I think most horror audiences accustomed to watching independent horror that plays festivals will not care as at no point did I feel removed from the film. The second is that the third act is perhaps a bit heavy in landing some its themes, and for some audiences they may feel a bit steam rolled. I understand that, and I do think in the future a lighter approach to thematic elements would help. Still, the strengths of the film so far outweigh this that I cannot help but recommend this film to anyone reading. A Wounded Fawn combines the sorts of ideas that have animated both our myths and our monsters for centuries into a very aesthetically pleasing and well told modern story. The well executed direction and design utilize what are some impressive performances to craft the kind of nightmare that I think will stay with us for some time.