Set in a lower-class suburb of mid-1980s Perth, a disturbed and vicious couple kidnap teenage girl Vicki and hold her hostage, for reasons that are left frustratingly vague. Vicki begins to realise their relationship is tenuous at best. The wife, Evelyn, is vulnerable and unhinged, but I think we’re supposed to empathise with her because her husband (John, played by a convincingly savage Stephen Curry) is even more of a monster than she is. Evelyn gets suspicious that he’s starting to love Vicki more than her, and Vicki sees this as a weakness to take advantage of and tries to work her way out of her predicament.
This is Ben Young’s debut feature and he is a skilled director who knows how to create a gritty atmosphere. I have lived in New Zealand all my life, and since there has always been such a drought of quality television produced here, we often look to Australian programming to keep us entertained. Because we’re exposed to so much of it, the bleakness of the Australian suburbs and outbacks have lost so much of their appeal. If you aren’t from around these parts, I can see how these Australian settings can be used to inspire unsavoury feelings but they’ve been so overused that they’ve become trite and stale.
Evelyn and John are also the sordid kind of people you would expect to live on these streets. They aren’t ruthless gangsters; they’re just a couple of lowlife thugs, evidenced in one of the more effective scenes of the film where John is confronted in the street by another sleazeball who wants the money he’s owed. John crumbles and promises he’ll have the money by tomorrow. Meanwhile, Evelyn is in a phone booth speaking to her ex, demanding to speak to her children. Her ex refuses and she loses her temper, lashing out at the poor prick who was the nearest to her. Am I supposed to sympathise with Evelyn because her children aren’t allowed to stay with their mentally volatile mother in her squalid home?
Evelyn is portrayed as another victim of John’s vile behaviour, and I guess she is. She’s clearly infatuated with him and will do anything he tells her, and part of her blames him as the reason her kids aren’t allowed to stay with them. But John didn’t put the knife in her hand and force it into Vicki’s throat. She spends half the movie begging for John to kill Vicki and bury her body where nobody can find her, and I’m pretty sure the bruises and cuts and black eyes and swollen lips weren’t just caused by John’s fists alone. Evelyn is a brute; a truly despicable human being, but we’re asked to feel at least some forgiveness because it’s John who brings these brutal emotions and actions out of her.
That means the emotional core of the story lands on Vicki’s shoulders, and this is where Hounds of Love feels the same as every other film of its ilk. Of course, we inherently care about Vicki because she’s just a teenage girl. This is the same ploy every torture-porn flick uses; we’re forced to care about the victims because they’re young, innocent, vulnerable women. But we know this is just a movie. Vicki needs to have a voice and a character and a life behind her to make us truly care about her, but she’s just another empty, typically one-dimensional teenager in another violent, superficially ruthless crime-thriller.
The performances are really the only thing here worth recommending. Stephen Curry is shockingly authentic as John, and his turn brilliantly highlights the alternating personas of his character (temperamental and sadistic one minute, calm and sinister the next). Emma Booth does her best to actually make us care about Evelyn, and the shakiness, insecurity, and fragility she imbues in her almost makes her a more captivating character than she is on paper. Ashleigh Cummings is a great actress (if you get the chance, check out Puberty Blues, a wonderful coming-of-age TV series where she gets to portray a teenage girl with a lot more substance), but, unfortunately, nothing more is asked of her here except for kicking and screaming.
In Hounds of Love, writer/director Ben Young tries to give the conventional “kidnapped girl in a crime-thriller” narrative a new twist and, in a way, he almost succeeds. The movie is sleazy, tense and tightly controlled but has absolutely nothing to say about the motivations of his characters, nor does he even create a compelling family dynamic to keep the viewer interested. Young’s visual flair and the unpleasant atmosphere do its best to deceive you into thinking you’re watching a better film than you actually are.
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