Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is a fascinating hybridization of genre. The film is partially an attempt at a sort of modernized noir film, replete with a busy city, yellowy lighting, and a determined, intense protagonist. But despite its elevated aesthetics, the film is also based in some truth and realism, as its story is directly inspired by a very real collection of murders that took place about two decades ago in Iran.
Journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) has come to Mashhad, a holy city in Iran, in hopes of investigating the “Spider Killer”, the man murdering sex workers in an attempt at “cleansing” the streets. Rahimi is a fascinating and well-portrayed protagonist: unlike many of her noir predecessors, Rahimi’s work is frequently slowed by her gender, as well as her need to prove and assert herself constantly. And yet, she has that traditional hard-boiled charm: she’s unafraid to raise her voice, take unconventional paths, and demand things go her way throughout her investigation.
The opening half of the film is partly Rahimi’s unraveling of the mystery and partly told from the perspective of the murderer and the women being murdered by him. The film definitively succeeds where the noir-style murders occur right under the police and Rahimi’s noses. These murders are horrific and raw — not cinematic over-dramatizations, but hyperrealistic. While the “Spider Killer” has the same tactic for each murder and sees his victims as a sort of monolith, Holy Spider is effective in imbuing each victim with a life and individualism even in their brief screentime. Instead of dismissing these murdered women as plot points, each woman has a depth that makes their murders another major, tragic, unjust loss of human life.
But around the middle point, the structure of Holy Spider feels cleaved in two. The latter half of the film turns to focus almost entirely on the aftermath of the events of the first half and becomes a far more distinct commentary on the cultural and social implications of the murderer’s motivations. In many senses, the film becomes a twisted court drama, highlighting unjust practices, divided ideologies, and the somewhat nauseating support that the “Spider Killer” receives from individuals who feel his “cleansing” was the right thing to do. This half of the film is compelling, but it feels like a turn from the original premise, one that slows down the sense of intrigue so carefully developed in the former half of the film.
That said, Holy Spider is still interesting and impressive in the sort of genre-bending work it sets out to do. Its cultural exploration is thoughtful without getting in the way of a sharp, exciting plot led by an intriguing and well-crafted protagonist.