Hounds of Love is not an easy watch. Writer/director Ben Young’s feature debut follows Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth and Stephen Curry), an Australian couple who abducts, rapes and murders a series of teenage girls in the mid-1980s. Inspired at least in part by married serial killers David and Catherine Birnie, the Whites perform devastating acts of sexual violence, and we are witness to all of it through the eyes of their most recent victim, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings).
But Hounds of Love has the power to surprise us in an over-crowded genre of horror films and thrillers about abduction and rape. The film carries more weight than many of its ilk by virtue of a simple but significant decision: we never see the sexual assault play out onscreen.
We see the moments beforehand, the terror in Vicki’s eyes as she understands what’s about to happen to her. We see the dreadful aftermath, the bloody sheets and weapons, Evelyn’s grim clean-up process. But those moments in between, the terrible acts that we’ve seen portrayed countless times in cinema, are left unseen.
Why does this make a difference? If we’ve seen it all before, and our imagination is capable of filling in the blanks, if we know the trauma Vicki is suffering, why does it matter that we don’t see it? In part, there’s a matter of basic sensitivity here, a level of consideration to the real-life victims of sexual assault who may be watching this film, to the real-life women it’s based on, and to Vicki herself, a fictional character whom we quickly learn to like and admire, this prickly teen whose parents are divorced, a complex young woman who tapes cool photographs to her diary, devoted to her boyfriend, quick-thinking and brave in the face of such horror.
But there’s more to this decision than compassion. Hounds of Love sets itself apart by telling its familiar story through new eyes: Vicki, her mother Maggie (Susie Porter), and even Evelyn. We learn enough of Evelyn’s backstory to understand that she, too, is one of John’s victims, even as she has made herself a villain in the name of her love for him. We learn that they’ve been together since she was 13, that Evelyn once separated with him for a period, fell in love with another man and mothered two children with him. But at some point she succumbed again to that dangerous pull toward John. Her children are elsewhere, and Evelyn is desperate to see them again, this quiet urgency that beats behind everything she does. It’s a weakness that John exploits, but still Evelyn cannot say no to him, cannot bear the thought of losing this man. Even though in the moments that she is alone, we see her dismay at the evil things they’ve done together, the violence that fuels John and slowly chips away at Evelyn.
Maggie’s point of view is equally unexpected in such a film. We are given so many opportunities to understand Vicki’s mother and their relationship. Maggie has recently divorced Vicki’s father, and Vicki’s furious with her for what she sees as a betrayal of their family. Despite pleas from Vicki and her ex, Maggie does not stray from a path that she knows to be right for her. She’ll be the bad guy if she has to be, but she will not let Vicki push her away no matter how hard she tries. Vicki and her dad have a much better relationship, but it’s Maggie who instantly knows something is wrong when Vicki doesn’t come home after sneaking out to a party. Everyone else – the police, Vicki’s father – shrugs off her absence, but there’s something to be said for that uncanny maternal instinct, the little nudge Maggie gets inside that says her daughter is not safe. When Evelyn forces Vicki to write a note to her mother claiming that she ran away from home, Vicki very carefully words the note, knowing with the simple faith of a well-loved child that her mom will eventually decipher this message and come to her rescue. Maggie does not let her down.
And then, of course, we have Vicki, the focus of all of this violence, the bright, burning sun around which everyone else orbits. We feel instantly for her as she navigates her parents’ divorce, and we can even understand how she ends up bumming a ride from two strangers, an unwise decision even in the much safer terrain of 1980s Australia. But as Vicki is walking down a dark street at night, fending off the cat-calls of drunk guys driving past her, we can see her weighing the danger. This nice-looking couple, or the shadowy unknown? And after all, Evelyn and John are very good at the job of appearing normal.
In the end, she makes the wrong choice, but Vicki never stops fighting, never stops plotting to escape the dark consequences of this decision. She is strong and clever and this will not be the end of her story. She bides her time and surveys all possible avenues of escape. Though Maggie does eventually decipher that note and find her way to her daughter, Vicki ultimately rescues herself first.
Interestingly, the only main character lacking in nuance here is John, and it's clear that this is a deliberate decision. Aside from one small scene in which he’s being bullied for money he owes, we never learn the why or how of John – if indeed there is a why and how behind such malevolence. Hounds of Love is so distinctly the story of women, three women who are forever tied by a terrible act. And that above all else is likely why we never see the sexual violence Vicki is forced to suffer. The act itself is not what bonds these women, but rather the cost of that act, and the events that led to it. Hounds of Love is a story of survival, of strength. And Young’s decision not to show’s Vicki’s rape only makes that story more powerful.
Hounds of Love is in theaters today. Get your tickets here.