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I didn’t plan on seeing the Australian abduction horror flick Hounds of Loveduring my time at SXSW — there are just so many movies over such a small period of time that it’s hard to even fit in stuff I’d really like to see (Small Crimes, I’ll watch you when you hit Netflix, I promise) — but a couple of people I admire said it was pretty good. So, I gave it a chance at a packed early afternoon screening at the Alamo Ritz, and as soon as the credits rolled, I had no idea what fucking movie everybody else watched.
Hounds of Love tells the story of a Perth schoolgirl named Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings), who’s having a rough time with her parents’ divorce. She’s doing poorly in school, and her pothead boyfriend’s writing her essays for her. One night, after a fight with her mom (Susie Porter), she speaks out to go to a party, and meets a seemingly kindly couple of small time “drug dealers”, who happily give her a ride back to their place (you know, since they forgot the drugs and all) and offer her a drink. She says sure, and begins to feel weird, and sure enough, she’s been drugged by a nefarious serial killer (Stephen Curry, the Australian comedian, not the basketball player) and his girlfriend/accomplice (Emma Booth), who loves him and wants her kids to live with this dude. And sure enough, it’s as gross as it sounds. Will her family be able to find out where she is in time to save her from a shallow grave in the forest?
It’s fair to say that Hounds of Love is something that probably deserves a hefty trigger warning, and I really felt bad for the servers at the Drafthouse I saw it at, who had to run through incredibly ugly scenes of sexual assault. I mean that in the strongest terms possible: this is like two steps removed from Irreversible territory, and I’ll spare you the graphic details. That movie had something interesting to say about the nature of violence and how it begets violence, and while intentionally not done in a tasteful way, felt dramatically appropriate. Hounds of Love has no such dramatic justification for its brutality, and makes no excuses for its moralistic bullshit after-school special message: Listen to your mom and don’t sneak out of the house or you could get raped and murdered by a pair of psychopaths. And I just don’t know if those means are good enough to justify its ends, or to really separate this from the same kind of misogynistic moralizing that this movie wants to think it’s above.
There is one redeemable aspect of this film, though and it’s one of the actors. It feels like Emma Booth is in a totally different film every time she’s on screen, one worth of such a compelling performance, one free of the slow-mo scenes of suburban Perth (almost lifted wholesale from Blue Velvet — like we get it, dude), or free of the hammy over-and-underacting of the abducted girl’s parents, free of just awful uses of era-appropriate pop music. Her performance suggests a truly transgressive film, one perhaps centered entirely on her character, where we’re just left alone with her and her choices and her dueling loves: for her children and for the abusive psychopath who saved her from (shockingly) something worse. She’s absolutely electric when given the room to perform, her emotions straight on her sleeve, bare and raw. As it is, she’s simply a side character in a mawkish abduction movie, which will no doubt hold her up as it’s feminist bona-fides down the road. As is, Hounds of Love ranges from just merely bad to disgusting. It might be your taste, but I don’t know if I really want to be your friend if that’s the case.
A final note before I put Hounds of Love in my rearview: Can we please, please stop using Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” as a catch-all soundtrack salve when someone’s going through some truly dark shit? Surely there must be other songs out there in the world that could get the point across in the same way. It’s kind of both missing the point and ruining a great song, much in the same way bad movies did to Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” a few years back.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.