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Hounds of Love
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by Jay Seaver

"Watch carefully, because this is the good stuff."
5 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 19: “Look closely” can be an empty or obligatory thing to say when explaining why a film is particularly good, especially when, on the surface, it seems like just another crime story that makes its mark with heightened cruelty and violence. Trite as those words may seem, they apply to "Hounds of Love", and not just because they let you admire the precise work that filmmaker Ben Young and the cast and crew put in, but because looking closely can become a means of survival.

Not that Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) gives that much thought; the pretty teenager is kind of in a selfish place at the moment, getting her boyfriend Jason (Harrison Gilbertson) to write her essays for her and resenting that, following her parents’ divorce, she’s got to spend the weekends at her mother’s new place rather than at her dad’s. When she sneaks out for a party, Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry) see her walking toward the highway and offer her a lift, and they sure don’t seem like the type to kidnap girls like her for a weekend’s worth of amusement before dumping the body. But they are, and they’ve done it enough that they should be way ahead of Vicki as she tries to find a way out.

There is, understandably, a lot of writing about cinema and voyeurism, since it makes for an elegant, recursive arrangement, but that’s not what Young focuses on here. When he has the camera following his characters’ eyes, they’re gathering information, and that’s the way that a lot of the plot moves forward: John and Evelyn get familiar with Vicki’s movements before approaching her, Vicki notes the baby seat in their car and figures they must be safe, and so on. Young and cinematographer Michael McDermot don’t do many (if any) point-of-view shots, but they and editor Merlin Cornish make sure that the audience connects someone looking with what they see and makes sure it’s important information. It means that later, when somebody is surprised by a situation, we know they’ve been careless about not looking everywhere, and when the focus shifts from the kidnappers arguing to a bound Vicki clearly paying attention, it gives direction to the rest of the movie.

That’s simple, “every thriller should do that” activity, but not every one does, and a lot can get away with it because the filmmakers get a lot of other things right or have a unique hook. Young doesn’t go in much for exaggeration, finding his intrigue and horror in how average everybody is: Vicki is clever, but there’s desperation in how she tries to turn things around - Young can set up an obvious thing for her to do, but then he shows that doing that in the moment, flanked by crazy people with knives, is hard. The violence may not be elaborately staged or explicit, but it’s impactful - aside from how nightmarishly clear what’s about to happen tends to be, the aftermath tends to be genuinely off-putting. Young favors bruising over bleeding, which feels worse; it can’t be wiped away or washed off once the ordeal is done.

The fairly simple story relies on the cat to sell it, and the whole group does an excellent job of tapping into what gets seemingly ordinary people into this position. Emma Booth is the standout; while Evelyn could easily have been written and played as a true-mastermind type or always cowed, Booth finds a weird strength to her, like she’s effectively channeling her fear of losing everything that’s important to her until the illusion that she’s a full partner is stressed. Stephen Curry gets a somewhat more standard part, as the man who is an all-powerful monster within his home but a loser when he steps outside; his shifting body language is a bit more extreme, but interesting when the two situations collide. Ashleigh Cummings spends much of her time in tears or a panic of some sort, and she does it in a way that feels raw rather than pushing a nuance that might not be there in the middle of a genuinely fear-inducing situation. It’s still a performance that has room for her being a believably angry teen at first, before imbuing the seemingly passive acts of scanning the environment with increasing nervousness and desperation.

Vicki and other characters paying attention to what’s around them doesn’t sound like the makings of an active engaging movie, but it lets Young trim nearly all the fat from this picture, keeping tension high and the audience focused. When the audience is paying attention to the same things as the characters, the filmmaker doesn’t have to use flashbacks, recaps, or anything else that pulls them away from what’s going on, and the whole film winds up better for it.

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originally posted: 03/31/17 03:53:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/09/17 Joseph Luque Blew my mind at South by 5 stars
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