The crimes, pursuit and eventual punishment of a real-life killer of women who preyed on unsuspecting sex workers in early 2000s Iran are chillingly reprised in this grimly compelling procedural. Reminiscent in form and trappings to the likes of David Fincher’s Zodiac, Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Ali Abbasi’s film outwardly conforms to genre conventions, not least in having its coldly calculating villain pursued by a resourceful female antagonist.
Look closer, though, and you will see that Abbasi – previously seen at Cannes in 2018 with his peculiar troll romance Border – has far more than one man in his sights. Also in his crosshairs is the society that created him: one that thought his victims deserved what they got and that he was doing his city a favor by taking them off the streets.
Dubbed the “Spider Killer” in the press, the real Saeed Hanaei – a former soldier turned construction worker who had a wife and three young children – killed 16 women between 2000 and 2001, all in the belief he was doing God’s work. Holy Spider commences in the middle of his killing spree, one the police in Mashhad – a deeply conservative holy city that is home to the world’s largest mosque – show little interest in curtailing.
Frustrated by the authorities’ lackadaisical attitude, reporter Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) – an invention of the filmmakers – makes it her mission to bring the killer to book. Before she can do so, however, Saeed will kill and kill again: murders Abbasi recreates with a graphic fidelity that may be too tough for some viewers to stomach.
It is debatable how much can really be learned from seeing Mehdi Bajestani’s Saeed repeatedly bludgeon and throttle women he lures back to his home. What Abbasi does ensure, however, is that each of them is established as a character before they are dispatched: a crucial concession to the basic human dignity women in Iran are routinely stripped of, in life as well as in death.
More problematic is Rahimi’s role, which extends from indignant reporting of Saeed’s deeds to her playing an improbably active role in his identification and apprehension. Ebrahimi, a former TV star whose career in Iran was ended by a leaked sex tape, invests her role with a stern moral fury that might be partly informed by her own personal experience. For all that, one wonders if Abbasi and co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami have squandered a degree of credibility in their attempts to make such a clearly composite character so central to their narrative.
For the most part, however, Holy Spider is a clinical piece of filmmaking that starkly sets out the toxicity of zealotry fuelled by misogyny. The seeds Saeed sowed, it seems, are still being reaped.
Holy Spider does not currently have a UK or US release date. Stick with Total Film for all the latest coverage from Cannes 2022 – check out our review of Triangle Of Sadness, through that link.
4 out of 5
Holy Spider review, Cannes: “Grimly compelling procedural reminiscent of Zodiac”
An intense and gripping dramatization that, a few liberties apart, does justice to a disturbing true story.