Hounds of Love, Extreme Violence, and Exploitation

by thethreepennyguignol

I went to see Hounds of Love today, writer/director Ben Young’s debut feature revolving around the story of an suburban Australian couple (played by Emma Booth and Stephen Curry) carrying out a series of violent abductions, rapes and murders to assuage his twisted sexual appetites. We pick up as they abduct Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings) and carry out a series of physical and sexual assaults on the teenager, and a battle of wills begins between the younger woman and the older.

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Now, I want to make it very clear that Hounds of Love depicts the material in about the most tasteful way it possibly can. There’s nothing sensational or titillating about the violence – in fact, the vast majority of it takes place off screen, with the few flashes that take place in front of camera shocking and disturbing but relatively bloodless. The film was, as a piece of art, well-written, well-directed, and extraordinarily well-acted. And yet, I came out at the end wondering why the hell I’d sat through an hour and a half of it.

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I think, with even mainstream television like American Horror Story using violence that would have seemed unthinkably awful for even X-rated movies ten years ago, it’s very easy to get desensitized to violence, particularly when we’re so bombarded with it that it becomes expected for any “grown-up” piece of media to throw in buckets of it (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead). So, when a movie like Hounds of Love comes along that presents it’s violence as traumatizing, terrifying, and highly disturbing, it stands out. But where is the line between exploitative and necessary violence?

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Hounds of Love is, an it’s heart, a debut feature. And that means that it suffers from some problems, as all debut features do: there’s some clunky foreshadowing, some slippery pacing, and, most important, simplistic themes that the film seems less interested in exploring than it does the appalling acts of violence perpetrated against the victims in this film.

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I think that, as extreme violence has become a mainstay of popular and respected media, it can be easy to use it as a shorthand for Adult Themes. And that’s what Hounds of Love felt like it was doing: it’s a relentlessly, punishingly disturbing movie, but I’m not sure how much of the violence (and the implication of it) served the themes the film seemed to be trying to convey (motherhood, the scapegoating of women). Which begs the question – why use this inherently violent story to convey them?

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I’m certainly not arguing that films should not use violence, because that’s a stupid argument to make, or that stories with violence are somehow less worth telling than ones without. But it can be something to lean on, and that’s more what it feels like here. The trailer that I saw for this movie leans heavily on the violence and the implication of more, and most of the reviews discuss the films’ continuous and gruelling awfulness as a selling point in and of itself instead of a feature of a wider story. It just seems like the story is more about the horrific violence of these rapes and murders than it is about anything else. But…why?

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Is there not enough violence (against women, in particular) in the media already? Do the themes explored in this movie require it to show the aftermath of unthinkable violence, of a half-naked teenage girl chained to a bed screaming in terror as her two captors approach her to rape her repeatedly? And if they don’t, then what makes this movie any different from slasher movies who’s entire purpose is just to show violence? When violence comes first, is this film – especially given the real-life influences it draws on – anything other than exploitative?

Maybe it speaks to the effectiveness of Hounds of Love that I am so uncomfortable about the violence depicted. But it feels…thin. For all it dresses up as a prestige movie, this is a movie about violence more than it is anything else. It speaks a lot to the media landscape we’re looking at now when lots of reviewers described a movie, of which one of the first shots is a woman picking up a number of bloodied tissues surrounding a dildo recently used to rape a young girl, as restrained. And I’m not saying that films exploring extreme violence shouldn’t exist, but rather that we should demand films not rely on violence as shock value or as a shorthand for the challenging nature of their themes but as an actual device for storytelling instead.

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