The makeup of a crime-drama could be written out like a recipe for a frosted cake: one unfortunate, one criminal, one soundtrack of ominous instrumentals, one bloody torture scene, a death, an escape and credits. Australian director Ben Young’s debut feature film, “Hounds of Love” doesn’t follow the directions, burning the cake and forgetting the frosting. You’ll want to eat it nonetheless.
“Hounds of Love” opens with a hypnotic, slow-motion scene of teenage girls in their school uniforms playing on a basketball court. The camera lingers on the pleats of their skirts and the freckles on their legs, creating an uneasy, predatory feeling. The frame widens to include the car sitting in the parking lot. An unhinged couple, Evelyn (Emma Booth, “Glitch”) and John (Stephen Curry, “The Castle”) sit inside watching the girls, waiting to see which one will walk home alone.
Set in the 1980s in the suburbs of Perth, Australia, “Hounds of Love” is far from pretty: brown lawns, yellow brick houses, shag carpets and two serial killers with a doberman fill each frame. The scenes shift from drab to disturbing when the couple abducts Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings, “Pork Pie”), a teenage girl who had snuck out to go a party. After only a day of being chained up inside their home, Vicki realizes that her only chance is to latch onto the maternal weakness of Evelyn, whose two children had recently been taken from her.
Cummings delivers a stunning performance, gradually turning from fearful but cunning to desperate, then resigned. At the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, Cummings told a reporter that her character’s emotional progression in the film follows the five stages of depression. She said that herself and Young “tried to differentiate the performance in that way, so it wasn’t just a monotonous kind of screaming, crying fest, because the stakes are so high.” The psychological intent underpinning the performances as well as the production is what separates “Hounds of Love” from the rest.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is in what is shown and what is not. Many scenes are painful to watch, not because of gore, for the majority of the violence is hidden behind closed doors, but because of the unrefined, exposed quality of the performances. The gruesome nature and high-strung tension comes from watching the most intimate and vulnerable moments of mental turmoil experienced by the two women.
“Hounds of Love” is a painstakingly honest portrayal of abduction and manipulation as well as the strength of female empathy. Unlike many films within this subgenre, the central theme is not brutality but stamina, the limits of a human’s will to survive. It may taste bitter when you first bite into it, but the afternotes are sweet.