June 2017

Arts & Letters

Lowlife in the suburbs

By Shane Danielsen
Ben Young’s ‘Hounds of Love’ presents horror in all-too-familiar surrounds

Like the majority of Australians, I grew up in the suburbs – the southern suburbs of Sydney, to be precise; I was a Kogarah boy. I had no idea, at the time, that I was inhabiting a dismal purgatory, a haven for provincial small-mindedness, hypocritical piety and low-level kink, from which I could either escape (to the city or, better, overseas) or face the slow extinction of my finer feelings … How could I know? I’d read none of the books, seen none of the movies that might foster this belief. I don’t believe the phrase “the Australian ugliness” was ever uttered, either at my primary school or in my parents’ house. Only later, better read and more aware, did it occur to me that I was supposed to despise the things I had cherished. And then, obediently, I did.

Australian cinema has many of the same issues. We’re a predominantly suburban culture, yet it’s remarkable how rarely that world is represented onscreen – and with what distaste, suspicion and contempt when it is. As storytellers and audiences, we routinely ignore or condescend to the very forces that shape us. Only Lantana (2001) and Idiot Box (1996), in our not-so-recent cinema, or Love My Way on television, have engaged in any meaningful way with what it means to be townies – fretful behind our fences, estranged from the wasteland at our backs. A century on, we’re still waiting for the filmic equivalent of a Richard Yates or John Cheever, the artist who can evoke the particular textures of Australian suburban life, and render its joys and disappointments in deft, precise strokes.

In the meantime, we have films like Hounds of Love (in limited release 1 June), “extreme” dramas in which the real menace is not the minotaur but his labyrinth. In detailing the abduction and torture of a teenage girl by an older and, yes, consummately suburban couple, first-time writer-director Ben Young presents a compelling if not especially original examination of co-dependent psychopathy. (He also displays a knack for finding the sinister in the quotidian: a slow push-in on a red brick wall, for example, with a single, boarded-up window in the centre, manages to suggest unimaginable terrors in a single image.)

But Young also has broader points to make, it seems, about the ubiquity of domestic evil. And so his gaze keeps drifting sideways, to the homes next door and the spacious, sunlit blocks beyond – if not to implicate them directly in proceedings, then at least to imply that similar atrocities may be being committed every day, behind the façades of seemingly normal houses, by neighbours we don’t really know and never will.

The film opens arrestingly, with a tracking shot across a local playground, and schoolgirls playing netball in extreme slow motion. At first we’re outside the wire fence, looking in – but then, abruptly, we’re not, and we find ourselves treated to a series of close-ups of torsos and tanned limbs, all moving at the same attenuated pace. Shot in widescreen, lit with the golden lustre of late afternoon, it alerts us not only to its maker’s penchant for stylisation (watching, I was reminded of David Slade’s 2005 debut Hard Candy) but also to our own complicity as spectators, since the camera then pulls back to reveal a couple – John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) – watching the girls from a parked sedan, more or less exactly as we have.

Soon they’re driving slowly down a street and pulling up beside one of the netballers to offer her a lift home. It’s broad daylight. The couple seem friendly. The girl accepts their invitation. But not long after that, Evelyn is collecting bloodied tissues (and a thick black dildo) from the floor of what must, I suppose, be called the rumpus room. And then John is driving into the bush to dig a grave …

John rather wears out his toys, you see. And Evelyn, a more fragile soul, is willing to let him have his way in order to achieve her own goals. She desperately wants her two kids to come live with them – and this, we learn, requires a certain accommodation to her partner’s habits, be it arranging his toast just so on his plate each morning, or looking on as he forcibly sodomises a captive.

All this is told in a 13-minute pre-credit sequence, less a succession of scenes than a sequence of tableaux, heavy on narrative ellipses (most of the violence is implied rather than depicted) and the prickly unease of Dan Luscombe’s score. Thereafter, the film devotes itself entirely to the ordeal of 17-year-old Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), a schoolgirl from the neighbourhood, lured inside on her way to a party with the promise of a smoke, and promptly bound, gagged, beaten and raped. Scarcely less horrific, though, are the minutes that precede the assault, when the drugged teenager is forced to watch her abductors slow-grind against each other in their living room, as ‘Nights in White Satin’ plays loudly on the stereo.

Something about the use of that particular song and the staging of the physical action – John and Evelyn moving to block either end of the hallway as Vicki blearily searches for an exit, like two leopards stalking an especially drowsy wildebeest – combine to make this an unusually unnerving sequence. Try as it might, the film never evokes quite this potent a mix of sleaze, pathos and menace again.

It was made in Western Australia, and its story appears to be based on the case of David and Catherine Birnie, who over the course of four weeks in 1986 abducted, tortured and killed four women at their house in the Perth suburb of Willagee. Certainly, the similarity registered with Kate Moir, who was kidnapped by the Birnies when she was 17, in circumstances markedly similar to those this film depicts. She subsequently managed to escape (again, in a manner referenced here) and alerted the authorities, leading to the couple’s arrest and imprisonment.

In July last year, just over a month before the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the now middle-aged Moir blasted the production, telling the West Australian that Ben Young should have used “his own imagination” rather than simply drawing on her experience. The filmmaker hastened to deny any specific influence (he claimed he researched nine murderous couples in order to create the Whites), but the charge stuck, and the controversy apparently spooked Screen Australia; there are rumours that it won’t support true-crime stories in the foreseeable future.

If true, I’m not altogether convinced this constitutes a loss. Our cinema has hardly lacked for conspicuous brutality, after all. Indeed, it’s possible to draw a direct line of descent from Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998), through Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011), to this film. The first one was more squalid and singular, a pitiless, almost forensic study of class resentments and troubled masculinity; the second is, to date, the last great Australian movie. Hounds of Love, though elegantly put together, doesn’t quite equal those achievements – I suspect because, unlike those works, it seems to regard itself primarily as a horror film. Certainly the lingering shots of Vicki chained to a bed, her clothes filthy, her face bloodied and swollen, are regrettably reminiscent of similar beats from Saw and Hostel.

The problem with genre, of course, is that it tends to flatten complexity, reducing its characters to archetypes and their actions to a series of learned behaviours. Thus, while there are a handful of surprises here (far from being an omnipotent destroyer of worlds, John, we discover, is actually something of a weed, liable to be bullied by local toughs the minute he leaves his own front yard), most of the psychology on display is strictly rudimentary.

As the victim, Cummings commits entirely to her role, yet her character is never anything but predictable – from her initial pleading to be released to her later clumsy, desperate attempts to turn Evelyn against her husband. Meanwhile, a subplot involving her mother, Maggie (Susie Porter), mostly goes nowhere, and there’s a climax involving not one but two fake-outs – one borrowed, with a shamelessness worthy of Melania Trump, from Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Worse still (and reminiscent of Get Out, which I reviewed last month), there’s also the spectre of a far more interesting ending here than the filmmaker chose to pursue. The other, less predictable choice would have offered a far more provocative resolution, a final, shocking rebuke to the notion of female solidarity in extremis. Alas, Young opts for the obvious solution, and for something resembling a happy ending – albeit of an unnecessarily protracted variety: those final shots feel almost as drawn-out as the opening ones. For once, nihilism might have been the better option.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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