After Ali Abbasi's Border premiered at Cannes, it became clear this was a director deft at imbuing genre with a deep socio-politicism as metaphors of immigration melded with otherworldly fantasy world-building. Many wondered if perhaps this would be the beginning of a certain path for Abbasi, given Border's self-confidence – however, directors like Abbasi rarely remain within the confines of what has come before, and save for that continued societal focus, Abbasi's third feature Holy Spider is another pronounced departure.
Based on the real-life story of Saeed Hanaei, a man who preyed on Mashhad's sex workers in a so-called ‘cleansing' of the city, Abbasi divides his story into two perspectives – the hunter and the hunted. We watch as Zar Amir Ebrahimi's Rahimi, a seasoned investigative journalist who travels to the city of Mashhad in the pursuit of Saeed, played by Mehdi Bajestani who projects a constant veil of malevolence save for his brief moments of humanity with his son. It's an unconventional route to reveal your killer immediately, let alone to follow him throughout – but it wouldn't be an Ali Abbasi film if it wasn't unconventional.
Rahimi's experience in Mashhad is gruelling, suffering condescension, mockery, and numerous unnerving advances from those she attempts to collaborate with, constructing a portrait of a city gripped by misogyny which hints at the potential facilitation of crimes like Saeed's. The police seem unbothered in his attempted capture, making it evidently clear that there is a level of institutional complicity in these murders – while Saeed is responsible for carrying out the deed, he's far from the only one with blood on his hands.
There are reflections of Fincher's Zodiac in Abbasi's investigative structure, as Rahimi is forced into placing her own life on the line as she pursues Saeed, based off crumbs of information. There's a pervading malice throughout every darkened street and back alley she walks down, and despite knowing exactly who the ‘Holy Spider' killer is, you can't help but feel that she's possibly in terrible danger with every man she interacts with.
Abbasi's depiction of Saeed eschews what many may expect of him – he's clumsy, headstrong in his belief that he can overpower these women, despite that very assumption leading to one of his greatest mistakes. In an interview, Abbasi mentioned watching the 2002 documentary And Along Came a Spider, noting a perverse innocence around Saeed which Bajestani projects tremendously. His performance enacts an unshakable certainty within Saeed that what he's doing is just, and somehow, he is the hero of this story rather than the villain. What's even worse is that perhaps to the city of Masshad, and certainly those who police and govern it, he is.
Despite Abbasi's laudable complexity in approaching the ‘Holy Spider' murders, it cannot seem to escape that feeling of a generic police procedural as Rahimi approaches ever closer to Saeed. Particularly toward the end of the second act, that gripping tension is gradually loosened – perhaps because we know Saeed intimately by this point that that fear of the unknown is erased. Their endgame can only truly play out in one of two ways – Saeed's capture, or Rahimi's annihilation. Some may find the intricate and knotty third act to elevate Holy Spider beyond these criticisms, but it does feel that as Abbasi is forced to narrow his scope to conclude his spider's web, some of the more interesting threads are cut short in favour of a cohesive pattern.