Ben Young’s Hounds of Love displays the restraint and visual acuity of a veteran director’s work. The slow-motion opening sequence—consisting of close-ups of high school girls playing outside during gym class—immediately suggests a dangerous, leering gaze that will come to define the perverseness of the film’s central couple. When we finally see John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth), they’re waiting outside the school in their Volvo station wagon, complete with a child’s car seat in the back, scoping out their next young female victim. There’s a striking clash between the twisted desires hinted at in the opening and the couple’s pretense to normalcy, as they seamlessly blend in with the lower-middle-class town in which they live.
Based on real-life series of abductions and murders during the 1980s in Perth, Australia, Hounds of Love employs a slightly drained color palette and carefully curated locales to effectively capture the look and feel of the bland suburban wastelands of the story’s era. When John disposes of the body of his latest victim early in the film, he enters a vast nearby forest which seems at odds with his own dingy, unkempt neighborhood. The film, abundant in such jarring contrasts, seemingly references Blue Velvet in the ways its quintessentially suburban surfaces, from tract housing to children running through sprinklers, mask terrifying, violent impulses. John and Evelyn use their seeming innocuousness to bait their victims and eventually lure the teenage Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), who’s snuck out of her mother’s house to go to a friend’s party, to their place with the promise of selling her drugs.
Once Vicki is drugged and chained to a bed, in a scene that does for the Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin” what A Clockwork Orange did for “Singin’ in the Rain,” the true nature of John and Evelyn’s dysfunctional dynamic is revealed. While she’s complicit in the kidnapping and murder of previous victims, we begin to see the array of tactics he uses to control her. John is a smarmy sociopath who taps into Evelyn’s weaknesses and fears, manipulating her into accepting the repeated verbal and physical abuse he’s inflicted on both her and at least one of their now-detained children, and ease her doubts about his love for her by including her in his degenerate sexual exploits. As Vicki sees the cracks in the couple’s precarious marriage, she begins to exploit John’s increasing desire to have her to himself, using it as a means to convince Evelyn to leave John and help her escape as well.
Young uses Vicki’s psychological tactics of exposing John’s disloyalty to Evelyn to lead the film toward its grander thematic statement about women struggling to escape abusive relationships. The impetus of Vicki’s sneaking out to the party earlier in the film was born from her hatred of her mother, Maggie (Susie Porter), for leaving her father, Trevor (Damian de Montemas). While Maggie’s reasons for this separation are never revealed, her eventual reintroduction into the narrative presents her as newly empowered and misunderstood when she both refuses to go back to her controlling husband or accept that her daughter cannot be found. The eventual collision of these narrative strands of female empowerment is strengthened by the fact that each woman—Evelyn, Vicki, and Maggie—discovers their own unique path toward freedom, some of which are far more effective than others.
Throughout, Booth is uncannily dexterous at projecting the internal struggle of a battered spouse’s inner turmoil. Through the character’s confrontation of her inner demons and Vicki’s attempts to cope with her own dilemma, Hounds of Love tackles the disturbing issues of domestic violence and pedophilia without relying on exploitative shock tactics. Young’s camera is expressive yet tactfully implies rather than revels in the depths of the characters’ depravity, while his framing and editing fractures the space within John and Evelyn’s house so as to amplify the sense of Vicki’s entrapment. As both Vicki and Evelyn struggle in their own ways against the unhinged and impulsively homicidal John, Hounds of Love builds to a crescendo that earns its emotional catharsis while staying true to its roots as a truly chilling and intense thriller.