Thursday, 28 December 2017

Hounds Of Love (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: On her way to a party, teenager Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is picked up by suburban couple Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry), who offer her a lift. However, they don’t take her to the party; they take to the same place they took the last few strays they picked up from the side of the road: Shackled to a bed in their home. Turns, Evelyn and John’s sexual tastes lean to the more… adventurous, and if she wants to make it out alive, she’ll have to figure out how to turn the tables against her captors.

Along with it being nice to see Ashleigh Cummings in a movie again so soon after Pork Pie, it’s also rather gratifying to see her absolutely nail her character. She’s the film’s main victim and she sells the pain and abject terror very well, but its smaller moments, the ones where she tries to appeal to the humanity in her captors, that she shows off what she’s really capable of. Susie Porter as her mother gives an emotionally powerful performance here, hitting the quiet and loud moments with equal intensity, and Damian De Montemas as her father brings home some of the bigger themes of the story.

But it’s with the main couple that the real magic starts to happen, starting with Stephen Curry (no, not the American basketball player) as far less of a human and more a beast wearing a human’s skin. Knowing his background in Aussie comedy and even being part of some of our national cinema’s crowning moments, I legit never would have guessed that this guy was capable of being this terrifying. And then there’s Emma Booth, who arguably is actually the main character of the film. With how non-verbal a lot of the film is to begin with, she does amazingly well at delivering so many conflicting and often confronting emotions through only a few glances. This is one of those rare performances that suddenly make me give a shit about awards ceremonies, because she flat-out deserves to win Best Actress. Thankfully, she did; some things in this world still make sense.

As much as seeing Australian directors make it big in the global film industry fills me with a certain amount of pride, there’s always been this aspect of… well, there’s no other way to put it: Selling out. Look at some of the more celebrated films made by Aussies: Mad Max: Fury Road, Highlander (the first one, at least), even the works of Joel Edgerton like The Gift; all terrific films, but you wouldn’t have immediately guessed that they came from a very distinct cultural background. Hell, even with the under-the-radar flicks I’ve covered on here like Lead Me Astray, there’s still that feeling of taking on outside influences. Enter this film, which is absolutely soaked in 80’s Aussie kitsch. The Western Australian suburbs, the vernacular, the traces of cultural cringe involving the so-called ‘upper-middle class Australiana’; so much of this feels like it only could have come from one place. The film even opens on a scene of teenagers playing netball, one of the most decidedly Aussie things a film could start with.

I highlight all of this not just out of a sense of national pride, but rather to draw attention to how mundane this all feels to a local audience. No joke, after I finished the film, I looked outside my bedroom window to see the same collection of trees, fences and homogenized architecture that is so prominent in this film. It’s grounded in a very definite realm of reality, retro though it may be, which makes the events that take place feel even more unsettling. It takes the usual approach of suburban horror in that it emphasizes the mundane to highlight the shocking, making how domestic everything looks work to the film’s advantage when it gets to showing what the Whites do with their victims (Wow, that’s an accidentally loaded sentence). I say that but, in all honesty, we aren’t actually shown all that much. We get a hefty dose of grit and slime coating the action, but the film ends up implying rather than being graphic. When dealing with physical, sexual and even psychological abuse, this method is usually advisable, but it works especially well here at showing just how vile these actions are… and how close they could be to the local audience.

Not that this is just cruelty for its own sake; far bloody from it. Writer/director Ben Young, on his first feature-length outing, shows tremendous skill with visuals, him and DOP Michael McDermott uses some very nifty slow-mo shots to bring out the dread in semi-modern suburbia. But he also shows a definite skill in scripting too, as this is one of those films where everything we are shown has an absolute reason to be here. Even if it’s as simple a reason as explaining why this film is set during Christmas, all of what is shown here feels like it is part of a bigger puzzle with all the pieces intact. And what is that puzzle a picture of? Well, more so than a look at the psychology of serial killers, it’s a look at how even the most “ordinary” of relationships can be hideously toxic. This is where me calling Evelyn the real main character starts to make a bit more sense, as her relationship is juxtaposed with that of Vicki’s parents to show a lot of vulgar behaviour patterns that persist in both examples.

Even further than that, the film also looks into the effects that such relationships can cause, not just for those involved but also for the children born from those couplings as well. It highlights how broken couplings can end up driving those closest away, right into even worse scenarios. Even though this film technically came out last year, starting out on the festival circuit in Europe before making its debut over here, it feels fitting that we’re getting this kind of commentary in 2017. After all the nonsensical “won’t somebody please think of the children?!” arguments I’ve been seeing pretty much all year in connection to the marriage equality debate we’re only now seeing the back-end of, it’s a nice reminder that this overtly precious idealizing of traditional relationships? Maybe it’s not as pristine as these cretins would have us believe.

All in all, this is a film that I seriously hope is the start of a fruitful career for writer/director Ben Young. The acting is incredible, with Emma Booth and Stephen Curry giving some of the best performances I’ve covered all year, the visuals show a preternatural mastery of the elements to wring the eerie out of the norm, the song picks are quite choice (Carol Of The Bells gets used in the perfect context here, showing it for the fundamentally creepy song that it is) and the writing uses certain genre conventions to do some real damage on looking at the makeups and breakups of abusive relationships. And to top it all off, this whole package is Aussie as fuck in its aesthetic, showing that local filmmakers don’t need to abandon their roots to deliver truly intense cinema.

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