On hand-picked victims and groomed conspirators, emotional leverage, and the hierarchies of power in Hounds of Love
Hounds of Love Gunpowder & Sky
Director: Ben Young
Screenplay: Ben Young
Starring: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas, Fletcher Humphrys and Harrison Gilbertson
Not rated / 1 hour, 48 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
John White is an unassumingly handsome suburbanite with a house and a car and a wife and a dog and a girl chained up in the spare bedroom. He is of fit but slight build, and carries himself with a cool swagger and a confident smirk. He's never in any rush. He keeps himself well-groomed - salt-and-pepper hair with a 1950s movie-star curl and 1950s movie-star sideburns. And a finely trimmed mustache. He looks like the Black Lodge version of Rhys Darby. He can be inconspicuously charming when he wants to be, a quality that tends to come out only when he and his wife Evelyn scan quiet neighborhoods offering rides to overly trustful teenage girls. He and his old lady keep each girl around for a while; sometimes he gets attached to one of them, but more often he uses them up quickly and gets rid of them. In the mornings, Evelyn greets him with an overly doting smile and a hot breakfast. He's got her under his thumb and he knows it.
Evelyn White is desperate to retain her husband's affection. She'll do practically anything to stay in his good graces, to keep him happy, to keep herself convinced - even against her growing doubts - that she'll always be the one by his side. She enthusiastically helps him pick out each new target - the opening shot unfolding in extreme slow motion across a school yard, scanning the bodies of the girls as the happy couple make their latest selection. She and John have sex with her - violent sex, torturous sex - and when the party's over and the presumed runaway is reduced to a heap of broken flesh, John kills her (if she's not dead already) and wraps the body in a sheet and tosses it in the trunk as Evelyn curls up on the bed and tries not to listen. She doesn't like that part. The bodies are taken far, far away, and then she can put her mind at ease again. Her own naked body reveals a canvas of scars - a heinous combination of beatings and childbirth - and it feels like every time she looks at them in the mirror she feels more ashamed, becomes more resolute, more desperate, to do everything in her power to keep John happy. After all, she's been with him since she was just a girl.
Vicki Maloney is an unhappy 17-year-old like a lot of unhappy 17-year-olds. She has a playful relationship with her boyfriend, and a contentious one with her parents. She's still smarting from their recent split - blaming it entirely on her mother, whom she resents bitterly. Like, presumably, all the other girls who've crossed the Whites' path, Vicki is pretty - she looks like she could be Jemima Kirke's long-lost Australian sister - but naïve enough to take the offers of seemingly kindly strangers at face value. On her last night of freedom, she was just sneaking out to go to a party - walk to a party - and all she wanted to do was score some weed on her way over. John and Evelyn had just the stuff, or so they cheerfully insisted. The next thing Vicki knew, she was drugged, and then tied to a bed, and the rest can be better left unsaid. Whatever it is, it's not the kind of thing that's just going to last the night - and the windows are boarded up so no one in the neighborhood could even hear her if she tried to scream. But she's a resourceful one. And the longer she stays there, the more she understands about the uniquely disturbing relationship between her two captors.
What seems like it could be your standard kidnap-and-torture horror-movie scenario reveals itself as something much more robust in Ben Young's Hounds of Love. Between these three characters - and these three actors: Stephen Curry as John, Emma Booth as Evelyn, Ashleigh Cummings as their prisoner Vicki - the film becomes a psychological hothouse of sorts, its surprisingly delicate atmosphere mired in layers of power and toxic codependency, each relationship dynamic pressing uneasily against the next. When our power couple picked out their newest girl, surely they didn't expect to get so emotionally involved. (Although, given the palpable combustibility in even their mildest interactions, a jealousy-tinged emotional explosion was probably only a matter of time.)
Critical to most abduction films is what fills the space between captor and captive (which, in turn, is affected by which of those the filmmaker is most preoccupied with). Madness ... depraved indifference ... psychological torture ... poignant hopelessness ... vengeful determination ... matter-of-fact ambivalence ... Whatever the case, it dictates the tone and governs our expectations. What and where is the film's state of mind? (I've seen plenty of similarly premised movies that don't seem to have much of a state of mind, taking such a detached perspective to their violence - to the characters committing it and the characters receiving it - that it seems to remove all purpose. Even nihilism is a point-of-view, but some can't even manage that.)
With Hounds of Love, the mood Young sets is a volatile compendium of all three characters' states of mind, creating something quite deliberately greater than the sum of its parts. This is an abduction scenario fundamentally driven by the most base, callously vile impulses - no one is being held for ransom, no one is being purposefully punished; it's entirely what it appears to be, and what the film's most disturbing early images (of the bloody remnants left from their previous conquest) suggest - and yet Young uses it to reveal so much about these three people. And does so with keen observation rather than relying (at least not too much) on tepid psychoanalysis. He makes them into small-scale character studies, examining them by how they survey their own individual circumstances, and how each works with, and against, the other two.
We get several mini-psychological narratives playing out simultaneously. The way the film splinters the three in various combinations and points of view creates layers of competing tensions, every one of which feels capable of bringing it all crashing to the ground. It's psycho-Jenga. We get the requisite attacks and escape attempts, but most of the film exists along weird psychological boundaries and fault lines. John takes an uncommon shine to Vicki, and even has his way with her on his own - which is seemingly against the rules; he and Evelyn are supposed to do all of this together. Vicki tries to use this to work Evelyn against John.
Except those responses aren't necessarily as simple as that. Everyone - even Vicki, in small ways, whatever she can muster - holds some sort of power over everyone else. Though John is the domineering force in this household and this relationship - having clearly groomed Evelyn since her adolescence - there are very warped hierarchies of power at work here. He seems oddly skittish about being caught by Evelyn alone with Vicki, as if his only fear is losing control over this woman who already seems to be teetering on the edge.
Of course, only between these walls is he any sort of controlling force at all. We don't spend a ton of time outside the Whites' property, but in one scene - as John ventures out into town and stops at the convenience store - we see him accosted by a couple of younger men to whom he clearly owes money. They're not overly physically intimidating, but John suddenly looks, and behaves, like a much, much smaller man than he typically presents himself to be. The other men mock and bully him - even steal his cigarettes, like he's the small kid on the playground without any friends. He doesn't dare talk back; he's entirely submissive. The scene doesn't make John a victim - it just shows how weak he is outside the zone of manufactured power he's built for himself. If we didn't know Vicki was still in danger, it would be cathartic to see him humiliated like that. But as it stands, we instead suspect he might now be even more inclined to assert his dominance. It's a testament to Curry's performance that he makes this man monstrous and scary yet absolutely pathetic at the same time.
I realize this may be in part the similarity in time and setting playing tricks on me, but the 1980s-set Hounds of Love felt reminiscent, at times, to Justin Kurzel's The Snowtown Murders, another Australian film set in a recent past and inspired by the exploits of real-life killers (although, in Snowtown's case, on more specific terms). Aside from those basic resemblances, the way both films slowly settle into a horrifying new normal transforms their stories into almost surreal, out-of-body experiences. In the case of Hounds, it would have been easy enough to give us another basically nameless or faceless menace, and another basically indistinguishable victim. Instead, by delving into the psyches of all three characters, Young forges an atmospheric powder keg, turning a simple abduction story - one liable to blend in with a lot of other abduction stories - into an emotional and mental state all its own.