Ben Young‘s directorial debut Hounds of Love will make you want to look away, and yet, you may find yourself struggling to take your eyes off the screen. Such is the nature of a film that is so brutal and crushing, while also being a gorgeously shot, impeccably edited thriller. Fortunately, Young is a smart enough filmmaker to know when to look away for you.
Set in 1980s Perth, Australia, Hounds of Love follows a serial killer couple that stalks, abducts, rapes, and murders young women. It’s a grim and grisly gut-wrencher, and Young knows well enough that it shouldn’t be easy to watch. Indeed, it’s not the subject matter that’s special — a beautiful young girl is abducted and horrible things happen to her, it’s Young’s approach to it. We’ve seen that basic narrative unfold infinite times in entertainment, be it in pulpy horror thrillers or on your favorite weekly network procedural. But Young comes at the subject matter quiety and softly, getting intimate with his monsters in a way that demands careful craftsmanship, fully realized characters, and careful restraint.
Hounds of Love settles into unease from the first shot, a lingering, slow-pan on the bodies of cheerful suburban schoolgirls that feels explicitly like lustful leering. We soon learn that is the gaze of John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth), the psychopathic pair who pick up and dispose of one of the nubile young women in no time. It’s an instant introduction to depravity that makes us fully aware of what the killers are capable of before we meet our hero, their next victim. Vikki (Ashleigh Cummings) is a whip-smart, good-natured teenager struggling with the divorce of her parents. As angsty teenagers are wont to do, she rebels by sneaking out, dabbling in drugs, and generally isolating herself from her otherwise loving parents through snark and attitude. On the way to a party one night, John and Evelyn offer Vikki a ride, and while she’s reluctant, the presence of a woman comforts her enough to make the wrong choice and before she knows it she’s locked up and chained to a bed where all manner of nightmares unfold.
As I said, Young is smart enough to look away, and mercifully those nightmares transpire offscreen. He only shows us only the terrifying lead-up, Vikki’s shattering screams and futile struggles, and the devastating aftermath that bears a too-quiet stillness as Evelyn trudges through cleanup duty. It’s enough to paint a picture, and your imagination fills in the blanks with the worst case scenario (and all the scenarios are bad), but Young steers clear of exploiting the subject matter. There is no titillation in these acts, only a stormy, sickly darkness that settles into your soul.
Why watch it then? Because the violence and dreariness set the stage for a fascinating vivisection of everyday evil. While Hounds of Love is horrifying, it’s ultimately more character drama than horror. Young wants to explore these killers and their victim honestly. He wants to know what makes them tick, what makes them love each other, and what makes them stay together. You may flinch, but Young won’t. The film comes alive when it focuses on the relationship between Vikki and Evelyn, who quickly becomes the most intriguing character. It doesn’t take long for the audience, and Vikki along with us, to realize that Evelyn is another of John’s victim’s, even if she has become a monster in her own right. Evelyn had a life before John, a life she still longs for in many ways, but her obsessive love for him drives her to be equally complicit in his gruesome deeds. Young offers a treatise on toxic love, the manipulative power dynamics twist and corrupt, and he has the courage to strip it to its ugliest truths. When you see a woman wash the blood of violently-wielded sex toys, you see her stripped bare as the banal, deplorable, hideous creature she has become. And yet there is still a light in her, the ghost of the woman she used to be.
Booth tackles the role with a staggering, bracing performance that begs you to forgive Evelyn even though you know she is unforgivable. The film lives and dies by your ability to empathize with her, and in a trick of dark magic Young and Booth pull it off with the portrait of a desperate, broken woman who’s capacity for self-loathing is only matched by her self-denial. When Vikki sees the cracks in Evelyn, and in turn, her frayed relationship with John, the clever young woman begins to pull at the threads of their dynamic, hoping to unravel them before they decide they’ve had enough of her. A deadline that could come at any moment. As the intrepid survivor, Cummings does wonderful work with limited means. She spends most of the movie chained to a bed, but the young actress makes action out of the wheels spinning in her head, and Young structures the film so you always know what she’s doing, even though it’s never vocalized.
The final product is a devastating three-hander that offers a deep dive into the real world villains that walk the streets among us. To watch Hounds of Love is to feel the panic of knowing that the stranger standing next of you might just be capable of killing you with a smile. This movie looks into the void and it paints a stunning, disturbingly beautiful picture of the darkness hiding all around us in plain sight. It works because Young treats it with respect, honoring the reality of the situation. This film feels like it could be pulled from the pages of a forensic psychology textbook (though not nearly as boring). Most importantly, Hounds of Love is a film that admires its victim, celebrating her strength while revealing the weaknesses of her captors. Young is more interested in the abused than the abuser, and the result is an ambitious, tough-to-swallow drama fuelled by fearless performances and extraordinary empathy.