FANTASTIK FILM FRIDAY – May 12 @ 9:30 pm
Vicki Maloney is randomly abducted from a suburban street by a disturbed couple. As she observes the dynamic between her captors she quickly realises she must drive a wedge between them if she is to survive.
Director: Ben Young
Writer: Ben Young
Stars: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry
It’s a David Lynch world, and we just live in it: for quite some time now, the idea that the conformist keep-to-yourself conservatism of the suburbs can conceal unspeakable depravity is almost well duh. And on the evidence of his striking, queasy debut, Ben Young is very much a child of Lynch in this regard. Plotting a grimy little story inspired by several infamous real-life cases of serial abduction and murder that occurred in and around Perth in the 1980s, “Hounds of Love,” however, does not describe an idyll where smiling rows of white picket fences conceal grandiose depravities. Despite the often dreamy slo-mo transitions and the stylish, cleverly framed photography from DP Michael McDermott, lower-middle residential Perth as imagined here is a grubbily prosaic place, and the monsters who call it home are rendered even more monstrous because they are so banal. This is Lynchian perversity shorn of Lynchian glamor; surreality that comes not from heightened reality, but from reality lowered till it scrapes along the gutter.
The film announces its ordinary/creepy dichotomy from the very first shot in which we watch a group of teenage schoolgirls play netball. It’s a simple and relatively wholesome scene made deeply unsettling, and also perversely beautiful, by the lingering slow motion of their coltish limbs and colliding torsos, and the disturbing realization that the voyeuristic camera has no interest in the girls’ faces. We’re looking through the predatory eyes of John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth), a nondescript couple parked in a nondescript car nearby. In quick, efficient slices thereafter, Young shows them lure one of the girls into their car as she walks home alone in the sweltering heat and bring her to their one storey identikit bungalow, where they tie her to a bed, rape and torture her. The next day, Evelyn makes John breakfast and goes for a snooze while John kills the girl and buries her body in a forest.
Young’s style is not graphic, but it is so suggestive it might as well be. But perhaps the nastiest aspect of this whole nasty sequence is that John and Evelyn, who are sickeningly loved-up in the aftermath, go through the motions of the crime with a practiced air. This is routine — there have been others, there will be more, and sure enough, some time after, a few streets away 17-year-old Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) in sulky and rebellious mood against her mother (Susie Porter) who has recently left her father, sneaks out of her window to go to a party, but is waylaid by John and Evelyn, who convince her to come back to theirs with the promise of some pot.
The ’80s setting is convincingly evoked by understated costume and prop choices, so while there’s thankfully little of the “Here’s a Rubik’s Cube!” “Oh look a batwing sleeve!” shorthanding, un-spotlighted details, like Vicki’s teased-out hairdo and Evelyn’s shapeless mom jeans, along with a few choice soundtrack cuts from Nick Cave‘s pre-Bad Seeds band Boys Next Door, Cat Stevens and Joy Division among others, place us entirely in this era. And that’s important, because this was a time before “Stranger Danger,” before Lynch and before anyone really believed that, whatever about a man, a nice, chatty, personable young woman like Evelyn could be a killer. But Vicki may be spoiled yet she’s no fool, and even though it’s the slightly more innocent ’80s, it still takes the disarming friendly normality that Evelyn projects to get her to get into that car.
Which is why, although the film unflinchingly follows the slow, minute determination of Vicki’s fate — every flare of hope, every further twist of despair (including one particular borderline unwatchable sequence that strays close to exploitative) — it is really most interested in Evelyn’s psychology. Because the sadistic and controlling John’s desire to dominate and subjugate attractive young women is taken almost as an immovable object, a soul-deep perversion and corruption that cannot be reasoned with, appealed to or tricked. He would be committing heinous acts of violence, sexual and otherwise, against women no matter what. But Evelyn, though she’s a full and willing participant in not just the abductions but the rapes, is explicitly doing it to prove her doglike devotion to John. It’s suggested that part of her private pathology is that she gets off on these encounters because in showing how literally disposable these other women are, he is proving his love for her (which is why the suspicion that John might actually find the pretty Vicki attractive, is so unbearable to Evelyn).
Evelyn has fixated on the idea that theirs is a passion so great and unprecedented that anything done in its name is justified, so where John is a killer by nature, Evelyn believes she’s doing it all for love. And Cummings and Curry are superb (with Curry playing a role that’s about as far removed from his turn as the adorably dim-bulb Wade in the daffy Aussie comedy classic “The Castle” as it is possible to conceive), but Booth has the hardest role. And she revels in it, delivering Evelyn as both a self-defeatingly delusional victim of domestic abuse, and a dangerously deviant psychopath.
These are strong performances, committed to the truth of the scenario however grim that might be but Young’s talents extend beyond that. Having also written the script, he clearly designed this film to allow him to show off some impressive, expressive visual storytelling (helped by Dan Luscombe‘s clever electro score). “Hounds of Love” may not shy away from the more extreme moments, but it’s also a story told in barking dogs, twitching curtains and stacks of mail on the kitchen counter, in which a casual but pointed shot of four dead cigarette butts lined up neatly in an ashtray can suggest volumes about a character’s psychology.
As an attention-getting exercise in parlaying limited resources into a provocative and memorable debut, the film should be a springboard for Young’s future career — if anything it is reminiscent of Justin Kurzel‘s similarly violent and vicious “Snowtown,” which launched him immediately to wider notice. And while there is something faintly distasteful about creating from scratch such a sordid story about extreme violence committed against young women, as a potentially controversy-baiting showcase for your uncompromising sensibility, if that was Young’s tactic, it’s a successful one.
Though it may not even have been necessary. Because ultimately it’s not the seamy salaciousness of the plot that is the most impressive thing about “Hounds of Love” — more it is a demonstration of Young’s precise understanding of the mechanics of tension-based storytelling. His film, while unimpeachably confident, never lets the audience feel safe, maintaining a quite remarkable ambivalence almost to the last heartbeat. Add to that the echo-chamber effect of the atmospheric and suggestive craft, which makes you imagine you’ve seen more than you have, and as your anxiety levels ramp up to an almost unbearable degree during the protracted and gripping finale, you just can’t be sure that “Hounds of Love” isn’t going turn out to be an even sicker puppy than you’d imagined.
-Jessica Kiang, THE PLAYLIST