In 2019, Travis Stevens, better known back then for producing films such as Cheap Thrills, Starry Eyes, and 68 Kill, stepped behind the camera to direct his debut feature, The Girl on the Third Floor. The film was a lovely gooey tale of toxic masculinity that followed Phil Brooks’ character as he remodelled his new house. Last year, Stevens released Jakob’s Wife, a vampire film unlike any other. It starred Barbara Crampton as a muted pastor’s wife who came into her power after being bitten by a vampire. If The Girl on the Third Floor had been a study of the masculine psyche, Jakob’s Wife was an analysis of the female experience. Now Stevens returns with his third film in four years, A Wounded Fawn. This time around the worlds of toxic masculinity and the female experience collide in a compelling cat and mouse story.
A Wounded Fawn begins in an auction house. A roomful of buyers are bidding on a relic from Ancient Greece on behalf of the world’s elite. This artefact, and Ancient Greece itself, play a central part in what is to come. A Wounded Fawn uses timeless fables and ideas to address more modern issues and prove just how unenlightened mankind has become in a couple of millennia. It is in this setting that the first of the film’s two lead characters, Bruce, is introduced. Bruce is quickly revealed to be a man with murderous tendancies, his slaughter of a co-worker delivering a bloody opening to the story. The next scene brings the arrival of Meredith (Sarah Lind), the female lead, and a woman with a career tied to the luxury world of fine art. In her personal life she is recovering from an abusive relationship. Needing distraction from her past she agrees to a weekend away with her new suitor, Bruce.
After the initial dalliance with Bruce, the film shifts its focus to Meredith. Lind injects her with a simmering anger. It’s buried just beneath the surface, but flashes are glimpsed briefly. It signposts within her the ferocity needed to go toe-to-toe with a serial killer, and is a clear result of the traumatic relationship she survived. Her frustration at having been a victim is evident, but she channels it so that it becomes her power and ensures that she is a formidable opponent. Meredith isn’t your typical damsel in distress; in stark contrast, she is calm and collected, giving Bruce plenty of reasons to be cautious.
Early scenes between Bruce and Meredith are exciting to see unfold. Much like the Gods that once presided over the Greece of old, the viewer is all-knowing. Having seen Bruce’s proclivity for violence, the audience are aware that Meredith is being herded into a trap. Knowing Bruce’s extra-curricular activities adds a frisson of tension; the viewer knows that violence is coming, just not when. The anticipation is built slowly, with both Ruben and Lind playing into the tone perfectly.
As the couple settle into their woodland oasis the audience will be internally screaming at Meredith to open her eyes. For someone with a history of violence, she’s missing the blatant red flags that Bruce is raising, but this in itself is a tragically accurate reflection of life. Often those who have lived with a toxic relationship find themselves drawn to similar partners, the routine of nightmares being all that they know. Breaking the cycle is hard to do, but Meredith isn’t as oblivious as she appears to be. Upon arrival she is greeted by strange visions, a clear manifestation of the mysterious female intuition, and as it has with many others before, this sense is what helps her.
Once the bloody first showdown has occurred, A Wounded Fawn readjusts itself. It shifts attention from Meredith to Bruce, whilst at the same time morphing into something more abstract. The first act of A Wounded Fawn will likely draw comparisons to Mimi Cave’s Fresh. The second act though, is an entirely unique creation. A journey through the fractured mind of Bruce begins and ideas around masculinity are explored. Trapped inside of Bruce is an internal struggle between traditional ideals of gender power and a desire to be more progressive. Each side feels attacked by Meredith and her womanhood and watching Bruce unravel is incredibly entertaining. Josh Ruben is excellent in his portrayal, all his comic talents masked beautifully.
Colour plays an integral part in A Wounded Fawn. Right from the start there’s a running theme of blues, turquoise and lilac that contrast beautifully with one another. The colours almost represent the different genders on the screen, appearing to also battle for dominance. However, the colour that wins out is red. If not every shot, then in at least every scene, there is something red. This isn’t a dull red either, it’s a stunning, bright and bold red. Its inclusion shifts from scene to scene from either being background mise-en-scene, to a featured costume, to the staple fluid of horror, blood. As with other aspects of A Wounded Fawn, careful attention has been spent in its construction. Much like an artist, every colour and item on screen has a deeper meaning and significance and with so much to see and experience, A Wounded Fawn encourages repeat viewings.
Although Stevens’ films all share thematic genetics, the structures themselves are very different. With each film the director sheds his skin and builds a new visual style from the ground up. Not tied to any quirks, Stevens is able to fully create a unique environment for each of his stories to exist in, giving each their best shot at being accepted. These story worlds may look and work differently, but they each clearly have Stevens’ voice working through them. A Wounded Fawn incorporates elements of the high-class art world in which it exists. Images are constructed to look like works of art, a standout being a physical version of Lenora Carrington’s Operation Wednesday, but also there’s simply a sophistication to the set and costumes that scream high society.
The third entry into what has become Travis Stevens’ cinematic study of gender politics and toxic masculinity, A Wounded Fawn is a sophisticated film about duality. It explores good and bad as well as masculinity and femininity within the framework of two very different acts. The first is a tension-laced teasing game of cat and mouse, which falls away in the second half to make way for a ride that is both wild and very, very Greecian.
Another marvel from Travis Stevens, A Wounded Fawn is a tantalising collision of gender roles, genre subversions, and the elegant world of high-art.
A Wounded Fawn is available to watch on Shudder now.
This review was first published on THN.