The Violence of ‘A Wounded Fawn’

By asking its women to perform the daunting task of being the infallible goddess, the film neglects their pain and humanity.


There’s something at the core of Travis Stevens’s A Wounded Fawn, a 2022 film following a murderous man targeting a woman as his victim  that reminds me of the grim protestation running through the delirious jubilance of George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940). In the latter, Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord is called a “goddess” again and again by people nearest to her. “I don’t want to be worshiped, I want to be loved,” Tracy laments endlessly. The designation of goddess for Tracy means a relationship with others that is one-sided, it means others feel or expect of her that she only doles out judgment or love or kind opinion, without needing to receive anything to sustain herself in return, because it’s presumed a goddess doesn’t want for anything. It’s an impossible and irksome and flat task, being still and statuesque. It’s meant as an insult, a jibe at Tracy’s character’s judgmentalness. Ultimately, though, Hepburn’s character hates being called a goddess, because the term leaves little room for humanity, little room to focus on her as a full, dimensional character with needs and desires that are all her own. 

There is something similar at work with respect to the burden placed on the female characters in A Wounded Fawn that nags at my mind the more I consider the film. The women in this film seem to squirm under a similar designation as the one hurled at Tracy. 

The film is stylistically, aesthetically, and thematically rich as it initially invigorates the revenge horror mode, raising important questions about forgiveness and abuse and absolution; yet it ultimately falls flat for the larger-than-life task it presents to its female characters. The film places the burden of goddess-hood upon the women who serve as victims in this film. Because, through this deified role, they (the victims of violence) are meant to denigrate, judge, and potentially absolve the film’s anti-hero protagonist, thereby fulfilling the goal of its subgenre (the revenge film), the film’s final few frames are ultimately sapped of any edge or potency, its aesthetic charm is dulled. By asking its women to perform the daunting task of being the infallible goddess, the film neglects their pain and humanity, even as it uses them to pain the anti-hero, humiliating and thereby humanizing him. The bad guy gets to be fleshed out and complex, while the victims stand above him, for him, as two-dimensional effigies. 

Josh Ruben (Scare Me) stars as Bruce Ernst, a serial killer with a flair for and within the high art world. Bruce seduces women with his art knowledge and dopey, self-effacing smile and then brutally and meticulously murders them. There is a surreal element to Bruce’s madness, and we’re given to believe that a horned spectral being orders Bruce to commit his crimes, guiding him as though entranced through the murders. In the film’s first act, we meet Kate (Malin Barr), an art buyer who procures a valuable statue of the Erinyes, or the Furies — three goddesses/sisters Tisiphone, Megaira, Alekto, who would punish any man who committed a crime against the natural order of the world, crimes such as homicide, offending the gods, and even perjury. The statue depicts the goddesses wrapped in snakes and black robes pursuing and punishing a guilty man. Bruce shows up at Kate’s home, charms her, murders her, and then steals the statue. 

In the second act, we meet Meredith (Sarah Lind). An art gallery operator, Meredith is on the rebound as she recovers from a traumatic relationship, and is off to spend the weekend in an isolated cabin belonging to a man she’s recently started seeing: Bruce. What follows is not only Bruce’s increasing gaslighting and terrorization of Meredith as we get to witness how he goes about breaking women down before murdering them, but also a reckoning for Bruce in the third act, which has three of Bruce’s victims, Meredith and Kate included, literally become the Erinyes and punish Bruce, having him experience the pain he has caused them.  

With cinematography by Ksusha Genenfeld, art direction by Taylor Barry, set decoration by Erin LaSorsa and Yusuf Mohammad, and music by composer Vaaal, A Wounded Fawn is stunning to behold. Scenes swiftly flow from mundane to surreal with the dimming or saturation of lighting, which, giallo-esque and baroque in its color schemes as it is, primes every scene for tragedy and bleeding danger. The film certainly succeeds on a genre level. For the horror based in revenge or wish-fulfillment to be successful, it needs to compellingly debase the culprit using means equal to or greater than the ones he uses to hurt his victims; A Wounded Fawn certainly debases and mutilates Bruce as he mutilates women. 

If Bruce needs surrealist mythology to justify his violence toward women, then Meredith, alongside Kate and Leonora (Katie Kuang), who is the third Fury and apparently Bruce’s first victim, humor Bruce, using the fantastical rules his psyche functions by to hurt him. Guilty and gaslighting men tend to think of themselves as a victim of an alien badness, and so a bash in Bruce’s head loosens not a slimy part of his brain, but a monstrous entity that apparently was the root of Bruce’s evil, which, once excised, ought to cure Bruce, right? What chases Bruce through the woodland surrounding his cabin is not a bandaged, angry Meredith, but a trio of just and vengeful goddesses who walk Bruce nearer and nearer to a realization of his own monstrousness. It’s tough often within the film to delineate between real and fantasy, what Bruce sees and what is actually happening, but this seems to be the point — for Bruce to understand his own evil nature, he needs to be confronted by it in a language he can understand, that mythological romanticization/rationalization that he would employ to be able to feel justified in committing his murders in the first place.

Accordingly, the horrors in this movie are Lynchian in their satisfying grotesqueness. The punishments the Furies dole out to Bruce are grandiose, carried out to their fullest, goriest extreme, to the extent that the only way to make the images more horrific is to show them in their stark realism, to show them through the gaze of an onlooker, of a bandaged — not enrobed — Meredith for example, as opposed to the Ovidian filter through which Bruce perceives the horrors both emanating from his hands and befalling him. This rendering of punishments in their realism is something the film also does. In a kind of full pendulum swing, after carrying out Bruce’s fantasy to its utmost extent and with nowhere else to go, the film lands at a kind of flat reality that few revenge films ever can attain to, cutting off as they necessarily do before the consequences for revenge carried out are ever meted out; if they depicted consequences, revenge pictures wouldn’t be so satisfying to watch. The effect of this coming back to reality is that it shows Bruce to be pathetic and measly, nothing like the grand and tragic figure bound by an inescapable and mystical fate that he believes he is. In this manner, for the ways in which it satisfyingly paints revenge, the film is certainly a success.

That being said, there is something murky about the pains the film takes to flesh Bruce and his psyche and motivations out, even if this is ultimately to his character’s downfall. This fleshing out stinks as if rotten, especially in comparison to the script’s treatment of Meredith. When we first meet Meredith, she is in therapy and we learn of her ex’s violent behavior toward her. When Meredith’s therapist asks her what she’s learned, Meredith says, “I’ve learned not to absolve a man for his transgressions against me.” Meredith then goes on to tell her friends that she is in a particularly good mood because she felt her therapist was proud of her for her realization, which is certainly something to be proud of. From the manner in which the film postures Meredith, we as viewers are set to expect that we will learn more about Meredith’s past, and that the particularities of this past will play a meaningful role in how she responds to Bruce. 

What we get, instead, is a rather flat and contradictory (ultimately meaningless) characterization of Meredith. Her past, which we don’t learn too much about, certainly does make her more apprehensive with Bruce, she takes no time in asking him to drive her back to the city when things at the cabin get weird. But when she is deified, she loses her past, any of it that doesn’t have to do with her victimization by Bruce. Furthermore, in one sense, she perfectly embodies the phrase she said to her therapist, for she becomes deified as a punitive Fury — she does not absolve Bruce for trying to kill her. But in another sense, she undermines it completely, for a god’s role is to determine, or administer, or prepare one for absolution. 

All Meredith becomes is punishment incarnate, losing her individuality, her internality. By the film’s end, she is nothing at all like the woman we meet in therapy who visibly works to achieve the realization that she does not have to put up with men’s transgressions against her. In the therapy scene, we see her visible effort in the fluttering of her eyes as she is working to string the sentence together before she voices it; here, there is a sense of fallibility, of humanity, of labor being performed to get to a thought. We are primed to think after meeting Meredith that she might grow more as a human — she is trying, after all, to heal, which is a journey that arguably never ends. But as soon as she is with Bruce, Meredith becomes either stunted or some how swiftly achieves perfection; she loses humanity, she stops growing, she is finally and eventually become a god, a perfect vessel who already possesses all the knowledge, doesn’t need to work for any thought; she becomes the all-knowing and clinical and unmoving therapist who cares not for her own wellbeing, but instead nudges Bruce toward answers and truths about himself that she apparently already knows. 

Meredith, along with Bruce’s other victims Kate and Leonora, become ossified. Despite the fact that they experienced so much pain and suffering at Bruce’s hands, despite the fact that before death they were living, breathing humans with weaknesses, frailties — despite all this, they are for the majority of the film bloodless and divine. When a character doesn’t grow in a story, it means that they are stock, which is what Meredith becomes — she and Kate and Leonora are simply foils for Bruce, for better or for worse. The film posits that it is the victims’, the female victims’ job to not only teach their abusers a lesson, but to also walk them to individuation or fulfillment or growth, which is an abhorrent lesson to portray. It is never the onus of any victim to show to her abuser what and why and how he is evil, it’s never the job of any victim to put aside her own healing and pain, to set aside nurturing for herself in order that she may nurse her abuser, therapize him, judge him, facilitate his self-realization, his absolution, his mortification. 

When the film deifies Meredith and Kate and Leonora, it elides their identity, their humanity, their suffering, their voice, they become cut off from the horrors that Bruce put them through; in death, their existence is only about Bruce. As the Furies, Meredith and Kate and Leonora cease to exist for themselves, they exist only for Bruce.

Time and again in The Philadelphia Story, Tracy says she doesn’t want to be a goddess, she merely wants to be loved because she is a human being; time and again we see Tracy express her humanity, that because she is human she is lacking much, she needs others as much as they need her. She says she has a beating heart, that she is not cold, that she needs warmth and kindness and understanding. Tracy begs and pleads that others see her as a fallible human being, not some stony, immovable goddess. A Wounded Fawn seems to have not heard this protestation coming from women for years. Tracy’s is a plea that writers texture female characters, flesh them out thoroughly and with nuance. But A Wounded Fawn treats its women in the way that many treat Tracy in The Philadelphia Story; the film forgets that no human can be a god, that we need kindness and nurturing, too. In punishing its anti-hero, the film forgets to do justice to its most vulnerable and aching characters.

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