This true crime procedural from the Border writer-director relies too heavily on beaten tropes and brutal violence to make its point
Between the years 2000 and 2001, Iranian construction worker Saeed Hanaei (played in this fictionalised account by Mehdi Bajestani) killed between 16 and 19 women in Mashhad, a city famously known as a destination for religious pilgrimage. Posing as a client, the man picked up sex workers from the streets of his neighbourhood and took them to his house, where he proceeded to mercilessly strangle them with their own headscarves. When asked about the reasoning behind the frenzied murder spree, Hanaei said he “killed the women for the sake of God, and for the protection of my religion.”
The press labelled the ruthless murders the “spider killings,” Hanaei cast as a chillingly calculated executer with the deadly precision of an arachnid. In Holy Spider, Ali Abbasi’s much anticipated follow-up to 2019’s Oscar-nominated Border, the director employs this precise sense of dread to create a thriller preoccupied with analysing the twisted moral ripples of the spider killings, which saw thousands of people gather in support of Hanaei and raised questions regarding the police’s ineffective approach to the investigation.
If one comes into Holy Spider looking for the twisted oddities of Abbasi’s previous film, there is some disappointment to be had. While the first few beats of suspense play into the director’s penchant for depraved violence, the killer’s ruthless web woven through the accumulated murders of vulnerable women and a bone-chilling score that further emphasises the unwinnable nature of this cat and mouse game, what comes next is a relatively tame endeavour. Here, Fincher meets Farhadi in a narrative that fails to succeed in both of these inclinations, its moral issue far too unambiguous and its sleuth plot verging on the mawkishness of a procedural.
The further Holy Spider leans into courtroom parable, the deeper it sinks into mediocrity, placing bets on beaten tropes that have been done more efficiently elsewhere – and with the required subversion blatantly amiss here. Women are repeatedly bashed and dismissed, the literal hands that drain oxygen from compressed pipes standing for the metaphorical hands that cover the mouths of whistleblowers. The violence, employed without much care for critical dissection, has the bitter aftertaste of gratuity.
As it draws its uninspired conclusion, Abbasi’s foray into true crime doubles down on its questioning of morality, as if the previous two hours of on the nose nudges can't be trusted to illuminate the point Holy Spider so desperately wants to make. Perhaps this should be taken as a sign.
Holy Spider was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 20 January.Where to watch