Hounds Of Love, the debut feature by Australian writer-director Ben Young, is about disappearance. Of course, given that the film is framed around the abduction of disaffected teenager Vicki Moloney (Ashleigh Cummings), such a description might sound blatantly bloody obvious – a little like describing American Beauty as a film about plastic bags. But absence and loss don’t only make up the cosmetic surface layer of the film’s plot: rather, the twinned themes soak into every second of this impressive debut, as Hounds Of Love’s gentle melancholia eventually becomes a resounding wail.
See, Vicki’s parents, freshly divorced, can’t stand each other – they’re even too hurt and hysterical to properly search for Vicki without bursting into a fresh argument. And even Vicki’s sadistic, murderous captors, John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth) aren’t the sickeningly sweet couple they first seem to be. A custody dispute has barred Evelyn from seeing her own children, and John’s aimless, self-destructive violent streak is rapidly isolating him from the world.
Everyone in the film is missing someone or something – everyone is grieving some loss they can’t even really put into words – and Young’s startlingly balanced handling of his heroes and his villains elevates Hounds Of Love into something special indeed. The film’s central escape set piece is horrendously tense, the cinematography is beautiful, and the soundtrack is bubbling, brutal brilliance – but the real clincher is the screenplay, a work that uses a familiar horror cinema trope to explore the dull ache of absence.
The performances are uniformly excellent – Curry, playing against type, seems to be having a great deal of fun – but the real breakout performer is Booth. As Evelyn, an abused, damaged yet undeniably cruel sadist, Booth does the finest work of her career, alternating between snarled, vicious threats and sobbed apologies. Indeed, her character’s arc is the film’s real secret weapon, as Booth compels and disgusts the audience in equal measure. Hers is, without a doubt, the best performance in an Australian film that has seen distribution this year. Awards are owed to her.
That said, the film does have its occasional rough edges: the first 20 minutes are a little slapdash and poorly paced, and the nice, neat bow tied onto the conclusion does leave one wishing Young had gone for something a little more subversive; a little more open-ended. But such quibbles are comparatively minor.
All in all, Hounds Of Love is a raw, beating heart of a film – a work of dark, deeply human imagination, pumped thick with blood.
Hounds Of Love opens in cinemas on Thursday May 25.