1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Hounds of Love
art of me wants to say the existence of Hounds of Love (2017) is wasteful. Gritty and brutal, it circles around an Australian, serial-killing couple’s weeks-long torturing of a teen. It is not a whole lot more besides a feature-length depiction of an abusive relationship; it is not a whole lot more besides a feature-length depiction of the psychological and physical hurts done to a victim who, fortunately, makes it out alive. Because it is a film made in the same vein as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) or My Friend Dahmer (2017), features which aimed to make us feel sympathy for real-life devils, it, to a certain extent, asks us to try to feel compassion
for monsters. Such is something with which I’ve never felt comfortable, even if the product is well-made.
But writer-director Ben Young, making his film debut here, shakes up the formula ever so slightly and delivers a movie timely in a period during which discussions revolving around misogyny and violence against women are more pronounced than ever.
Its leading characters are serial killers, and its heroine is mostly kept helpless and victimized for its 108 minutes. But Young doesn’t overplay callousness. Almost all the violence is offscreen. There is no attempt to render the main perpetrator of the heinous violence sympathetically. Young isn’t interested in the nitty gritty, lurid details of the story he’s telling, which is based upon the real-life crimes committed by David and Catherine Birnie.
What he contrastly appears to be compelled by are his female characters, and how their victimhood affects them. The womanly half of the antagonistic couple, Evelyn (Emma Booth), has been groomed by her monstrous husband, John (Stephen Curry), since she was 13 years old. She is complicit to his crimes because she is stuck in an abusive cycle, itching to get out of her hellacious situation but too prone to falling victim to emotional manipulation to do so.
The teenager who provides the story with its most important emotional details, Vickie (Ashleigh Cummings), is realistically portrayed, at once a fighter and a susceptible individual who could pay the price if she were to make the wrong move. We also get a sense of who she is: a lost teen struggling in school, with the recent divorce of her parents, with herself.
So often in true crime-centric works of entertainment, the sleazier components of the wrongdoings being talked about are emphasized. Consumers tend to be more interested in a twisty narrative than they necessarily are in the emotional nuances of the people involved, and as such are persons like the ones featured in Hounds of Love usually presented in cutout form. John would be the accidentally glorified monster. Evelyn would be wicked wife. Vickie would be the escapee whose name would eventually be forgotten.
Hounds of Love seeks to both redefine how crime is portrayed in the media and represent the various shades of relationship violence and victimhood. It is fervent in its attempts to bring never-given multidimensionality to a would-be murder victim. In its ventures to show that women like Evelyn are victims, too, even if they do literally let someone get away with murder. In its way of making sure John is always a one-note beast. (This ensures humanization is never an option for this despicable man.)
The performers handle the material just right. Curry, who’s better known for his comedic work in his native Australia, is so unsettling because his evil is so hard to detect at face value: it is of the sort we forget can exist in the everyday. Booth has the most difficult role here – that of a woman whom we shouldn’t feel compassionate toward but do – and manages to portray Evelyn’s psychological tug of war without a hint of romanticism or wrongly felt empathizability. Cummings expertly conveys conflicting courageousness and ever present terror.
This is an ugly, upsetting film, difficult to watch and even more difficult to stomach. And yet we need features like Hounds of Love. We don’t see stories of relationship violence of this caliber very often, and we don’t see victims like Vickie portrayed with such care, either. This is necessary, given how there are certainly boxes into which society tends to put victims of crimes such as the ones shown here. The movie is vital, too, in taking an appropriate step in dissuading a culture so intrigued by serial killers from giving so much attention to men like John. It’ll leave you shaking. But that’s Young’s aim. B