It’s hard to think of a more grisly opening to a movie this year than the sequence that kicks off Holy Spider. Ali Abbasi’s third film tracks the notorious Iranian ‘Spider Killer’ – a serial murderer active in the holy city of Mashhad in 2000 and 2001 – and introduces him to us in a sickening manner. First, we meet Somayeh (Alice Rahimi), a young mum working as a prostitute, getting made up in a dingy bathroom before heading into town. We see her making her usual grim rounds, including a sex scene with live coverage of 9/11 playing in the background and an incredibly explicit and claustrophobic in-car blowjob, before a man on a motorbike picks her up, takes her back to his place, and strangles her in exhausting real time.
It’s stomach-turning stuff, sure to induce walkouts within the first ten minutes, but it makes its point effectively; Iran is no nation for women, just a place where they’re made to serve men and die. It’s hardly a subtle or nuanced message, but this heavy-handedness is often a strength, crafting an atmosphere you’ll long to escape but can’t quite shake. Abbasi’s true-crime thriller calls to mind both Fincher’s Zodiac in its forensic approach and painstaking reconstruction of the crimes themselves and Paul Greengrass’s recent 22 July, switching focus back and forth between victims, investigators, and the perpetrator himself.
Our lead is Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), a female journalist from Tehran who has come to Mashhad to investigate the killings alongside local crime reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani). Naturally, the authorities – many of whom largely agree with the Spider Killer’s violently misogynistic motives, if not quite his methods – don’t make it easy for her, from trying to turf her out of her booked hotel from the moment she arrives to actively threatening her with rape when she proves tougher than expected.
Every frame of Holy Spider is poisoned by the misogyny it studies but, naturally, never as strongly as when we’re actually spending time with the killer, a construction worker named Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani). Married with a son and two daughters, Saeed claims to be on a divine mission to rid a holy site of ‘corrupt women’, but Abbasi and Bajestani never buy into this delusion, instead just showing us a man whose hatred for women was so strong that he could barely breathe through it, all his actions motivated by this rage.
It’s an impressive piece of performance, but also Holy Spider’s weakest link in just how much time we have to spend with Saeed. Being in his company is grotesque and repetitive – in a film that could stand to lose 10 or 15 minutes, most of that more superfluous-feeling time is in these scenes. Abbasi and co-writer Afshin Kamram Bahrami do manage, though, to keep his actions in the distressing context of a society that borderline encourages them. We get the sense that, even as the law reluctantly closes in on Saeed himself, that his rage is just a symptom of a larger sickness, that his ‘work’ will continue.
In Holy Spider’s best single shot, Abbasi tells us all this without a single word being spoken. After Saeed dumps Somayeh’s corpse by a motorway in the dead of night, the camera flies up as he drives back towards the city, street lights showing us the intricately woven tangle of streets and alleys, the entire place his hunting ground. You might be able to catch the spider but the web is eternal.