There’s something captivating about the ads for Hounds of Love, the way it markets itself on the difficulty of its subject matter. It knows that we’re disturbed by it, it knows that it is in fact disturbing, and reaches out a hand to promise you that there is something rewarding at the end of this dank, horrific tunnel. Its refusal to shy away from its own unpleasantness while avoiding the impulse of shoving it in your face like some kind of horror film was enthralling enough that I regretted missing it when I went home from college, and rented it on iTunes once I realized it became available. The premise of a real psychological battle not just between a teenage girl and the couple who’ve kidnapped her but within that couple itself is a compelling one, and one that’s as hard to watch play out as the trailer suggests. And yet, something about the whole felt off somehow. Hounds of Love hasn’t found the correct balance of itself, between confrontational subject matter and actually being confronting to watch, between establishing shots and unnecessary aestheticism, between giving each of the three characters their due within the narrative and palpably swapping focus midway through. Bursts out of the house are jarring but ultimately rewarding in their own narrative, as the missing girl’s family attempt to find her. Perhaps the film’s riskiest gamble is the way it shifts from being primarily the girl’s story to that of the female kidnapper, and a commentary on the behaviors of abusive men and the women who partner themselves with them, willingly or not, and what people do to keep themselves together. There’s no way for it not to have impact on you, but Hounds of Love nevertheless feels slighter and less abusive than it wants us to think it is.
Is it cruel of me to ask for a crueler film if that’s what it has set itself up to deliver? I don’t mind if we’re left to imply the horrors that Vicki experiences at the hands of John and Evelyn, and it’s not totally fair to base a film’s content on its ad campaign. Even by those standards though, the early segments of Hounds of Love have sequences and artistic choices that don’t fit with the film that director Ben Young wants to make. That we never see the face of the first girl we see the couple kidnap is an early indicator that the film will be more about them than it is about the girls they capture, even if we are treated to small slices of Vicki’s life between faceless shots of darkly lit chained arms and scattered sex toys, hearing her scream as the silhouette of John comes closer to her. We only learn this girl’s name (“Gabby”, and we don’t see her last name in full) and face in missing posters, seen taped to a telephone after we know her to be dead and buried in the woods. Immediately after capturing Vicki we are treated to an odd, slow motion pan down the street of the kidnappers as their neighbors go about their ordinary, non-murderous lives. The sequence toes the line between a long, unnecessary establishing shot and a contrary companion shot to the previous scene, emphasizing Vicki’s plight through an almost fetishistic sight of people outside living their lives. Setting the film during the Christmas season also treats us to about two set pieces of the couple committing crimes with carols going over the soundtrack, so obvious in its affect that the impact is dulled by it.
On the other side of that same coin, many of the film’s early scenes are strikingly uncomfortable in the mood they produce, and the sequences where the film lets its terrible situations play out in full are properly difficult to watch. The opening, slow motion shot of a group of teenage girls playing badminton, again ignoring their faces while it pans up their bodies, is all we need to see to know that we’re being placed in the POV of the killer couple. The long, uncomfortably casual setup of John and Evelyn luring Vicki into their home and trapping her plays exactly like every parent’s nightmare as we watch Vicki realize far too late what’s happened to her. To its credit, the film never, ever steps into prurience or salaciousness in its depiction of John and Evelyn’s crimes, even as it probes their psyches in depth. There is no chance of glorifying or sexualizing their actions, even in the moments where we’re presented with theirs as a stable, happy relationship that’s extended to kidnapping women, rather than one being kept alive or even strangled by it.
It’s the proportioning of itself between these three characters that has me most unsure, perhaps, of what Hounds of Love wants itself to be. At a certain point, it is undeniable that the film is primarily setting itself up as a character study of Evelyn, rather than Evelyn and John, or Evelyn and John and Vicki, even with the broader points the film is making about men and women by way of why these people are kidnapping schoolgirls. John is given surprisingly little to do in terms of specifying an inner life or articulating a motive, and the film doesn’t give him the amount of backstory Evelyn gets or life before all this Vicki is shown. A scene of him being accosted by two men demanding money he owes them – even what he bought is implied, though probably weed – suggesting that the only control he has in his life is over Evelyn and whomever they’ve just kidnapped, is the closest thing to a motive we’re given. Their sexual celebration literally seconds after capturing Vicki and the way their torturing of her as a husband and wife activity would suggest the kidnappings to be a criminal extension of their love for each other feels like a plausible explanation, but the degree to which this, like John, feels underexplored next to the amount of detail Ben Young lavishes onto the women, and even that is somewhat vague. We only need a short scene about how much Evelyn loves her dog, but if we’re going to dive this deeply into the minds of one criminal character, the lack of attention around her partner and around them as a couple only makes the attention to her feel even more lopsided. Stephen Curry gives a small, subtle performance in the role, but he doesn’t have the room to make anything more interesting out of John than a paragon of the way pathetic men cruelly assert their dominance over women however they can.
Then again, maybe the ways he tries to soothe Evelyn would matter more if the film and the actress hadn’t decided to make her so obviously fraying from the beginning. Her first real close-up, unable to get herself off the bed as she hears John rape and kill Gabby, only shows the jealousy she feels about the way John relates to the girls they’ve captured. That the film already starts with her on the verge is a smart move, but Booth frequently tips her hand a little too much in scenes that require tighter playing. She’s too open about Evelyn’s woundedness and growing insecurity about John and the children she’s not allowed to see anymore because of him. Vicki doesn’t need to be as good at reading people as she is to see that Evelyn’s already on edge about the foundation of her relationship, and by the time we see her putting on Vicki’s makeup after staring at her naked body in her mirror (or was it makeup, then naked mirror in a different scene?), after spending so much time away from Vicki and John, I began wondering what constituted a film as an acting showcase above all else. Films like last year’s Fences and 20th Century Women are as reliant on top-notch acting as anything to work as wonderfully as they do, and yet both films have enough going on and more than enough to say that they weren’t considered objects built only to win their headliners prizes. Usually if something is derisively labeled an acting showcase the film and the performance seem blatantly constructed to cop prizes, obscuring its own message in the name of getting Kate Winslet or Al Pacino or whoever a airtight excuse for building a trophy case. In an entirely cynical reading of Hounds of Love it’s almost too easy to see the film as a showcase for Emma Booth’s performance, even as the film earnestly tries to explore the psychology of Evelyn. Booth’s choices don’t always work even when her impact is undeniable, and she is as committed as Ben Young seems to be in exploring her character without making it actually about how harrowing her performance is. Nudity is only a small part of a de-glammed model/actress playing an astonishingly vile, insecure woman. Looking up the film I was astonished that it was Ashleigh Cummings who had won a Best Actress prize from some side-segment of the Venice Film Festival. Even the poster prioritizes Booth above all else, confining Curry to basically a floating head behind her while Cummings gets a good chunk of the poster but is muted by the colors. You have to look to find her, while Booth is right there on display, in every sense of the word.
Had Young and Hounds of Love sought for a Monster-ish indictment of society and/or of men by way of this abused, abusive kidnapper, that would’ve been something. But this argument falls apart the moment you look anywhere else. Vicki’s parents are fighting because of divorce, though her mother’s plea to understand that she couldn’t stay in that house any more suggests … . something? Vicki’s boyfriend is nice, and then we don’t get to meet anymore men in the narrative. As is, the film feels hollow, and writing this review has done nothing to convince me about its values. All I can see here is a pretty sterling performance from Ashleigh Cummings, playing her character like she’s straight out of an Andrea Arnold film, convincing us a young girl who’d fall for a grown-up equivalent of the van with candy that’s still resourceful enough and full of such will to send a coded letter and almost escape the house. She shows us Vicki’s pain without bathos, refuses in any way to connect or bond with Evelyn without overtly manipulating this clearly unstable woman about how awful John is to both of them, and she’s able to convey the breaking of this girl even as her worst assaults happen offscreen with horrific economy. Beyond her, I’m not quite sure what Hounds of Love has to offer, or what it’s trying to do. The brave have not been rewarded as much as they’d hoped to be, in this particular case. If I was less disturbed than I’d expected to be, it’s still an upsetting film, effective even when its devices are remarkably obvious. Still, if the subject matter is too much for you to stomach, there’s not much of an artistic statement hiding under its promises of a rewarding viewership. There’s moments of great unease, and one special performance, but there’s mostly an uneven character study, examining subjects and ideas you can find done better in other films.