A serial killer hunts prostitutes in Iran to cleanse his holy city of unholy vice, and the female journalist investigating him suspects the police are in no hurry to catch him.
That’s the premise of Holy Spider, a drama-thriller that quickly ensnares you in its web with a story that is complexified by Iran’s views on morality.
Zar Amir-Ebrahimi plays Rahimi, a tough-as-nails reporter on the hunt for the Spider Killer. She’s great in the lead, delivering a fierce if curiously unreadable performance. She also tends to serve as the voice to explain things to foreign audiences who don’t understand the less-than-perfect judicial system in Iran.
Even then, Western audiences will recognize in Holy Spider the tangential elements at play as the investigation unfolds, including political pressures. The religious perspectives are where the movie, to some degree, stands apart, and where director and co-writer Ali Abbasi appears to be most fascinated by. Much of Holy Spider is a fairly straightforward, albeit well made, serial killer thriller, but its the movie’s final 30 minutes that stand out. It becomes less a question of whether the killer will get caught than what will happen to him—will a killer on a religious mission be persecuted for ridding a holy city of women who desecrate its values? (never mind the men that feed the industry)
Equally interesting is Abbasi’s examination of the killer. Unlike in so many movies where the killer is an awkward loner, Saaed (played to perfection by Mehdi Bajestani) is married with children, his dark side hidden to them. While I don’t feel Abbasi fully taps into the psychology at play, Saaed is a compelling and not completely unsympathetic villain (you could go so far as to call him likeable… when he isn’t strangling women to death).
Those hooked on the investigative aspects of the movie may be jolted to find the film’s final act more interested in bigger questions. Abbasi slows things down a bit and I wouldn’t describe this stretch as fully effective, and yet he stays true to the message he wants to tell. Some of the moments here nonetheless feel a little heavy handed to get said message across (Saaed’s wife, for instance, deserved deeper exploration and more nuanced writing, but that’s not what Abbasi is interested in).
Holy Spider is a gripping, politically charged serial killer thriller that, while not perfect, explores profound questions. Recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.