Warning: This review contains content that some might find upsetting, reader discretion advised.
Directed by Ben Young
Starring Emma Booth, Stephen Curry, Ashleigh Cummings
Personally, I always yawn when I see the word “haunting” used to describe a film. Generally, it can seem like a banal, overworked descriptor, but when it comes to Hounds of Love, it is the only possible way to define the post-viewing unease that pervades the mind for days – and several sleepless nights. It sticks in uncomfortable ways, but it’s a ride that is completely worth that enduring tug at the darkest recesses of your mind. Hounds is a savage, raw psychological thriller that is absolutely worthy of the multiple awards and accolades already received, and viewing it should be a priority.
Those of us who grew up in Perth in the 1980s are aware of serial killing couple the Birnies. Their names are still a whisper in the back alleys of our memories, so Hounds of Love resonates like a tuning fork with the fear of that time. In what the media came to call the Moorhouse Murders, David and Catherine Birnie viciously kidnapped, raped and murdered at least four women. Local writer/director Ben Young’s stunning feature debut is not based on those crimes, but is rather an amalgamation of various true crime stories, woven together in seamless storytelling. However, Western Australian audiences will find the comparisons inevitable, the dark nostalgia palpable. The setting is so grimy in its reality it rubs raw, and the parlance of the characters is so recognisable. Even the languid summer weather is almost tangible. This is quintessentially Perth, but the subject matter will echo in audience minds globally.
John (a barely recognisable Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Perth’s own Emma Booth) are nothing short of depraved and gruesome predators. Young doesn’t mess about with couching the storyline, and dives headlong into their atrocities, a sharp jolt that serves as a warning for what’s to come. Their subsequent hunting, lure and capture of teenage Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is nothing short of terrifying, and will probably make many second-guess walking alone at night for a time. The kidnapping rapidly descends into a series of debauched, heinous moments of rape and torture, thankfully lacking in gratuity but nonetheless implicit in their horror. A closed door has never been such a painful mercy.
Evelyn and John’s coupling is brutal. Grounded in viciousness, their love is tenuous at best, downright abusive in truth. John is manipulative, controlling, and cruel even in his kindnesses. Completely dependent upon John for love and self-worth, Evelyn is isolated and alienated, and we begin to empathise with her even as she both aids and grants implicit permission for the treatment of Vicki during the atrocities visited upon her. Writer/director Young flawlessly humanises these monstrous predators, and it is extremely uncomfortable. As we observe even merciless John being bullied in his other life, beyond the walls of their home, it is a conflicting watch. Should we humanise monsters? Should we have empathy for the devil?
Amidst this savage mess, Vicki engages her wits to thwart their connection as she observes the abuse and proceeds to engage Evelyn and intervenes in their relationship, in order to enable her survival.
This is not John’s story. It wholeheartedly belongs to Evelyn and Vicki. They are both hero and victim, and therein lies the rub. For this is the story of many survivors of rape, abuse and violence in many ways, and observing a woman participating in and condoning them is acutely painful. It’s a harrowing watch for all, but possibly best avoided by those for whom triggers extend beyond a dismissive hashtag. That said, it can serve as catharsis, or an impetus for discussions which desperately need to be uncloseted.
The abused woman, as another victim of her sadistic partner, being coerced into evil by her man may seem a tired old trope, but it’s one that’s historically accurate, even when the woman is an active participant. Take a gander at any number of psychology papers on the subject and you’ll find various case studies which indicate that in serial killer couples, the man is usually the dominant sadist leading a more subservient, easily influenced partner. It makes sense that this partner would be someone who is in love with the sadist, but it is important to note that the two are co-dependent upon one another, as in most ongoing abusive relationships. Young doesn’t pander to the trope of the helpless woman, the hopeless victim at the whim of men. Rather, he pays tribute to them as human beings, not dictated by their gender, and capable of great strength. Heroism and humanity can prevail, and he has served up a delicious, meaty dish of hope.
The performances of the three leads are profound, the writing and direction stellar, and this is a truly great piece of cinema. Western Australians should be deservedly proud. Emma Booth’s award-winning performance is a stand-out, and her transformation into the tormented Evelyn is utterly, disturbingly convincing. Booth’s star continues to rise, and Perth should be so very proud. Any nostalgia about Dale Kerrigan will be ruined forever – Stephen Curry doesn’t so much as step out of his comedy background but explodes the box and watches it burn. And watch out, Hollywood – our Ben Young is coming for you, and he’s more than ready.
Buy a ticket, take the ride, but only if you’re capable. Be aware that there is a long list of content that some viewers will find disturbing to see played out before them in such a gritty fashion, so take a buddy who will hold your hand. You’re all going to need it.