If Hounds of Love, the feature debut of writer/director Ben Young didn’t do so much right, it would be unwatchable. For some, it might still be. It’s an unsparing, upsetting thriller that puts its protagonist through unspeakable tortures and forces her, and us, to peer into the mind of her tormenters. But it’s made with remarkable care and filmmaking skill and performed by the three leads with scorching intensity. It’s a rough film, but an insightful one that offers a glimpse into the abyss not soon forgotten.
Set in the suburbs of Perth Australia in 1987, the film puts viewers in an uncomfortable position from its opening shots, which linger on schoolgirls as they’re scrutinized by a couple on the prowl for prey. But there’s nothing titillating about how Young presents these images, just a sense of malevolence that’s quickly confirmed when we learn a bit more about who’s doing the watching. John (Stephen Curry) and his wife Evelyn (Emma Booth) are depicted as monsters from the start. They follow a girl, lure her into their car, and when next we see her there’s not much left of her to see.
But for all their repulsiveness, the film’s effectiveness hinges on keeping them recognizably human, a man and woman whose doubts and insecurities fuel their awful desires. And when their next victim, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) finds herself in their clutches, she recognizes quickly that exploiting those weaknesses might be her only way to escape.
A schoolgirl going through a rough time, Vicki’s still reeling from her mother’s decision to leave her father and eager to express her unhappiness by acting out. After a fight, she sneaks out to attend a party, running into John and Evelyn along the way. Lured back to their house by the promise of cheap weed, she finds herself — as the sounds of The Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” swell on the soundtrack — drugged and bound to a bed with little hope of escape.
She does, however, notice her tormenters don’t have a unified front. Evelyn is prone to jealousy and speaks of regaining custody of her kids. But John’s very presence pretty much ensures she’ll never be able to spend much time with them again. A twitchy ball of barely contained rage, he’s the sort of man who inspires instant, and justified, mistrust. When she’s not gagged, Vicki does her best to pry a wedge between the couple, but that’s no mean feat. Evelyn is sure she can’t live without John. And John knows how valuable it is to keep her under his control. They’re evil people but Young is determined to make sure we understand them as people above all. Both Curry (who’s well known for comedy in Australian) and Booth rise to the occasion, a commitment more than matched by Cummings. She captures the desperation of her plight while also conveying a sense of a mind at work, trying to find its way through the needle’s eye that will allow her break free.
Young lives up to everyone’s hard work, sometimes by letting scenes play out to their uncomfortable end while keeping the camera steady then, in a handful of set pieces, exercising a rare command of suspense filmmaking techniques. In one scene he makes the mere act of crossing a room to an open door seem as impossible as climbing Everest. He’s a director to keep an eye on, even if, one film in, he’s developed a speciality in creating films as are hard to watch as they are unmissable.
Hounds of Love will be in select theaters and on VOD Friday, May 12.