Two new movies that just opened are extraordinarily compelling films examining dysfunctional couples and the damage they do to each other, as well as to others. THE LOVERS is a domestic dramedy about a longtime married couple who both are having extramarital affairs, lying about it, and selfishly dragging their college-aged son into the center of it. HOUNDS OF LOVE concerns an Australian duo whose warped marriage involves the sadistic ritual and killing of teenage girls. Happy Mother's Day, everybody?
Additionally, these two films that just opened Friday are both sharply conceived entertainments that are adult must-see's. And each daringly show that often the most hurtful things said and done to any person are perpetrated by those married to them. It's a challenging and complex night at the Cineplex if you're up for it. And in the case of HOUNDS OF LOVE, it can make for a harrowing time in your own home as it's also available on VOD.
THE LOVERS, written and directed by sly filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, stars Tracy Letts and Debra Winger as Michael and Mary. From the moment we meet them, they are inflicting damage upon everything they touch. In the opening moments of the film, Michael watches helplessly as his mistress Lucy (Melora Walters) breaks down in tears, frozen in frustration on the floor of her bedroom. He's promised her he will leave his wife for her, but he doesn't have the guts to make it happen as soon as she wants. Meanwhile, the first scene with Mary shows her meeting up with her frustrated lover Robert (Aiden Gillen) who is smoking a cigarette to pass the time as he waits and waits for her. Between her demanding job and the need to keep up appearances at home, Mary has her hands full, and poor Robert comes third. Adultery is an ugly hobby and all involved are worse for it.
Still, despite the cold, ugly truth of the subject at hand, THE LOVERS is often very funny. It's a dark of comedy of manners really, and part of the fun in it is watching Michael and Mary twist their lives in all sorts of knots to keep up appearances. The plot concerns their attempts to bring some sort of resolution to their untenable situation as their son Joel (Tyler Ross) is about to arrive soon for a weekend visit.
Joel has a new girlfriend named Erin (Jessica Sula) that he's in love with and his parents have invited them home to meet her. Unbeknownst to the other, both Michael and Mary plan to announce that their marriage is kaput, and clue Joel in as well with one fell swoop. Joel has seen this coming for months and suspects that this will be their last time together as a family. He bemoans his situation and their history to Erin as they venture home on the train. He’s seen his folks carp bitterly at each other for years, and suspects that his dad is having an affair. Unfortunately, all that angst has turned Joel bitter too. He wears his resentment on his sleeve almost as well as his parents do.
Only Jacobs' audience is aware of all that is going on between the three main parties and their significant others, and it has the unusual effect of rendering us complicit in their shenanigans. We both sympathize with all parties because we see all that's happening, but it's somewhat akin to watching a car wreck. It's ugly and awful, but we cannot look away
Both Michael and Mary are craving love and attention, that which they haven't gotten from each other for years. And their insecurities are coloring every part of their lives from their patience-tested lovers to their jobs to their personal appearances. Each is telling so many lies to everyone that neither can just speak without having to analyze if it's a fact or a fib. They're both constantly late for work as neither can get their collective shit together in the morning. And both have let their looks slip.
Michael is lumbering, rumpled and shabbily dressed. At times, you can see the traces of the strong and secure man he once was, but now he's been reduced to hiding and faking phone conversations with those closest to him to keep them off his back. The world is taking a toll on him and his wardrobe. And Mary walks around with frazzled hair, loose hanging clothes, and moving in a state of constant hesitation. Sometimes it seems as if she's walking on hot coals. Her body confidence is down to nil and she clumsily brushes up against plants in her office on a daily basis.
Watching this all play out is rather amusing, but also, extremely cringe-worthy. If you've ever known people in affairs, their terrible actions and behavior will be all too recognizable and it's more pitiable than anything. Still, Jacobs wants it to be funny and has commissioned a musical score by Mandy Hoffman that is almost too on-the-nose for its own good. Giving the film the sound of something more suitable for farce doesn't work with actors who display gravitas the way Letts and Winger can.
At least Letts gets to cut loose some here and display his character's nincompoopery as he tries to keep up his facile cover stories to get out of going home or seeing his mistress when he's too tired to even show up. Letts is an actor who more often than not plays stalwart bureaucrats in works such as Showtime’s HOMELAND and last year’s INDIGNATION. (He's so good at acing stoic authoritarianism that I'll bet Donald Trump is envious.) Here though, Letts finds the humor in his character's pain, dialing up Michael's shambling about, doughy, pale and unshaven.
Winger looks a decade younger than she is at 61, and is such a welcome sight on the big screen. (She's been mostly working in television these days, if working at all.) But watching her play Mary is trying as her character is so on edge, no longer trusting of anyone or anything. This worn-out wife can't even take a genuine compliment anymore because she's learned not to believe or trust in things like love and marriage. Mary doesn't even seem to believe much of what Robert promises her. She’s exhausted, beaten down by the disappointments of life, and it's heartbreaking to watch.
Jacobs’ script doesn’t dimensional Lucy or Robert particularly well, and maybe that’s intentional as he wants to keep his audience from liking them too much. Robert comes off especially shabbily as he is a complete boor most of the time, despite the fact that Gillen is a handsome man who is often exceedingly charming onscreen. (He manages to make his supercilious villain character of Littlefinger on HBO’s GAME OF THRONES into a roguish delight.) Interestingly, Jacobs refuses to show us too many happy moments in the world of Michael and Mary, even in the presence of their lovers, suggesting that adultery taints even the outlets.
And when you think that Jacobs’ story is going to come to a head, with Michael and Mary forced to be honest with each other long before Joel arrives, the plot twists. They end up making love one morning and suddenly, they're back to being a couple. The sex is great, and love and respect returns, but now they’re adding insult to injury by cheating on those they were cheating with. It makes the film funnier, and yet in its way, all the more tragic too.
You have to hand it to Jacobs for handing a terrific part to actors over 50, and telling his story so straight-forward, without relying on flashbacks and fantasy sequences to cushion the blow of these angst-ridden players. Mostly, he should be commended for creating a shrewd work that shows just how abusive cheating and lying can be. And at the end, he resolves his story with the expected confrontations, but not a great deal being truly resolved. In the end, a certain amount of lying and deceiving has been baked into who Michael and Mary have become. Maybe it’s part of the human condition, but it all seems very inhumane. You walk out of the theater worrying for them because they're still a bit too blind to see the forest for the trees.
The married couple at the center of HOUNDS OF LOVE damages all they touch too. John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) profess great love and passion for each other, but their particular peccadilloes are horrifying. In their late 30's, they're lower middle class Australians, newly married and having trouble making ends meet. They steal letters from local mail boxes looking for extra cash to help them get by, and their home is a run down shambles. The worst of it is their hobby of picking up local teenage girls to rape, torture and murder. The couple that slays together, stays together?
We find out that it's actually John who has the taste for teens. Evelyn is going along with his crimes to hold onto her man. She's insecure about her looks, her age, and fighting to regain custody of the two young children from a previous marriage she lost in a custody battle. She needs John for all sorts of reasons and he knows it. He's often as abusive of her as he is of the teen girls they troll and pick up. Their love affair is at the heart of this horror movie and its limits will be tested by the latest girl they snatch.
She is Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), a defiant looker who's snuck out on her separated mom (Susie Porter) one night to attend a party. While walking down the dark street, she finds herself lost and in need of a cab. Then along comes the car of the Whites and they offer her a chance to use the phone at their home to call a taxi. They also entice her with the promise of cheap weed and alcohol to start her night.
Quicker than you can say "Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka", the Whites have drugged Vicki and chained her to a bed and gagged her screaming mouth. She's now John's sex slave, until he's had enough of her and will strangle her to death like the others, and it doesn't quite sit well with Evelyn. She's jealous of the teen's taut, unblemished flesh, and doesn't like the idea that John gets off on rape. As this becomes apparent to Vicki, she starts to work a wedge between her captors, to gain Evelyn's confidence and save them both.
Australian filmmaker Ben Young creates a horrifying portrayal of abduction here, writing it as tautly and terrifying as it can be, but wisely using his job as director to downplay how much we need to see. There is no gratuitous nudity and the violence, when it happens, mostly occurs off screen. (One murder in the story is one that will enrage any animal lover like yours truly, but arguably, it’s necessary for the film's narrative and mercifully, Young doesn't show us too much.) The way Young approaches horror, he knows that the scariest ones work best when we care about the characters at the center of the story.
He does something rather remarkable with Vicki. Despite her torment, she never stops thinking. As horrible as her situation is, she's always working an angle on how to escape. At one point, John attempts to rape her and she loses control of her bowels, sullying his junk and the bed sheets. Her enraged attacker strips the bed and dumps the filthy bed linens in the washer, while Evelyn enters to see what happened. Vicki lets her know what has occurred, aware that she's playing on Evelyn's insecurity, and it starts to turn her female captor against her male one. Vicki is shrewdly able to connect John's demeaning of his wife to like treatment of his teen victims. Soon, Evelyn is questioning why she's enabling her spouse to abuse either.
From there, the movie really becomes a suspenseful game of cat and mouse...or cat and mouse and mouse, if you will. The camera work, the editing, the sound design - it is all masterfully ratcheted up for maximum tension helping to make HOUNDS OF LOVE stand as another of 2017's superb horror entries.
As the summer movie season kicks in, and expensive tentpoles and numerous superhero sequels await, it's great to see two small budgeted pictures make such a big impact. They may not present the best portraits of loving marriages, but they do create hope for more quality, adult-themed cinema. And oh mama, am I happy about that this Mothers Day weekend.