SXSW 2017: In “Hounds of Love”, Psychosexual Tension Overcomes Suburban Perth

Directed and Written by: Ben Young
Starring: Ashleigh Cummings, Emma Booth, Stephen Curry, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas, Harrison Gilbertson, Fletcher Humphrys
Produced by: Melissa Kelly
Cinematography by: Michael McDermott
Edited by: Merlin Eden
Music by: Dan Luscombe
Official Selection of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival

*****

When Vicky Maloney sneaks out of her mother’s cozy home in 1987, she hopes for the same things all teenagers want: to get loose, forget her worries, and perhaps smooch her sweetie. Living outside sleepy Perth in Western Australia, there is altogether little chance that she could anticipate being kidnapped.

Yet in the extremely handsome and disturbing SXSW selection, Hounds of Love, Vicky – or rather, Ashleigh Cummings, the gifted rising actor who portrays her – has enough strength of will to shift her abduction soon after her capture into a wily mind-game with her captors.

Is this beautifully-shot thriller a feminist text, allowing its protagonist more agency and self-assurance than even the serial-murdering couple who lure her to their car? This is certainly more than a cats-and-mouse situation, with Maloney forced to endure physical and emotional degradation all too familiar to anyone who has heard President Trump’s conversations with Billy Bush.

Played with disgusting convincingness by Stephen Curry and Emma Booth, the Whites are sexual deviants and megalomaniacs of a distinctly Freudian mold, grabbing whichever young girls they can at random. But Booth’s Evelyn, unlike John White, is of a wrought mind: she enjoys and sometimes participates in her husband’s rapes, even while scorning him for his affairs with other women. Are Vicky and Evelyn two parts of the same whole individual, a soul divided equally by its animal instincts as by the social morays and repressions of post-colonial Perth? Who is the hero here?

This inconclusive uncertainty, brought on by the grotesque twists in Ben Young’s script, elevates Hounds of Love to the world of David Lynch, whose films it visually imitates. Michael McDermott shoots the film in a series of slow-motion tracking shots, even going so far into homage as to show an open-shirted man watering his yard. Young also directed the film, his first feature, and he pushes the dynamics of power and sex into the same kind of fucked-up, vicious vortex of Blue Velvet. And like Lynch, the filmmaker brings out tremendous performances in the devilishly mustachioed Curry, Booth and Cummings, whose victim role requires more snot, spittle, and blood than a visit to the dentist from Little Shop of Horrors.

Where Hounds of Love will struggle is in future efforts to find a commercial platform following its praised screenings at SXSW. Visceral and often exceedingly sexually violent, the film comes at a time where aggression against women and children should be combatted rather than form-fitted into entertaining horror. Had Young and his producer, Melissa Kelly, gone further in explicitly depicting Vicky or Evelyn as patriarchy topplers, we might be looking at a necessary revision of psychosexual abuse history (the story is apparently based on multiple real crimes.)

Yet just when Hounds of Love seems to be celebrating the powerful women at its center, it recriminalizes, brutalizes, and endangers them for the sake of its thriller structure. These are among this fantastic debut film’s only real mistakes, and they will not be fatal; in fact, Young’s second feature, Extinction, has already begun pre-production through Universal Studios with an A-list cast. One simply hopes this talented artist’s next picture puts its male and female characters on an equitable power level.

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