Looks can be deceiving sometimes. Ad campaigns and trailers promise one type of movie and deliver another. This is understandable to a point, since you need to get as many people as possible to see the movie you're promoting, and not every movie is an easy sell. There's nothing wrong with making a hard-to-categorize movie, but every movie is an investment and needs to recoup its costs, and "this movie isn't for you" isn't how you do that. I only bring this up because I'm just as susceptible to marketing as anyone, for good or ill, and occasionally it steers me wrong. I put off watching the movie about which I'm writing for awhile because although I'd heard it was good, I hear that a lot when it comes to horror movies, it wasn't the sort of story that usually piques my interest and well, given the premise, how much could you really do with it that I haven't seen before?
I was wrong. I was really wrong. The Loved Ones is clever, thoughtful, deeply tense, and absolutely masterful.
Before we see anything else, when we're still on a black screen, everything starts off with a song, before suddenly cutting to a different song, and then a different song, and then a different song, like someone changing stations on a radio, because that's exactly what's going on. But this is important because it's basically preparing us for a movie that's going to establish a mood and then cut away to something very different, and the degree to which it uses sudden contrasts effectively is part of what makes it an excellent film.
Open on two men in a car, the younger one giving the older one shit about the music he's put on. It's not a serious argument, just typically back-and-forth ball-busting as the older man gives the younger man shit about the "wrist-slitting shit" he likes and extolling the virtues of a good melody. Their camaraderie is easy, like two brothers, but they aren't. The younger man is Brent, and the older man is his father. Brent's dad barely looks old enough to be his dad. Maybe he had Brent when he was really young, maybe he's just someone who managed to grow up without growing old, but either way, it's a pretty positive father/son vibe, out in the car for a drive, until Brent almost hits someone standing in the middle of the road. Someone just sort of standing there, uncomprehending, just for a second. Brent swerves to avoid the figure and plants the car square into a tree in doing so.
Title card: Six months later. Brent looks different. Hair's longer, messier. He looks sallow, drawn. Something bad happened that day. He's standing at his locker at school, copping some weed and talking to his friend Jamie about the big school dance coming up. Brent doesn't seem that excited about going, but he'll take his girlfriend, Holly. Jamie's about to go ask Mia, who is the straight-up goth-vamp bad-girl of the piece. Jamie is punching WAY above his weight here, but she says yes. This is some classic, unreconstructed Sixteen Candles teen-comedy setup shit here except that Brent looks really fucking haunted. After everyone else walks away, another girl - Lola - walks up to Jamie. She's obviously spent quite a bit of time screwing up the courage to do this, and manages to say hi to Brent and ask him if he'll go to the dance with her. Brent, not at all unkindly, tells her that he's taking Holly.
See, now, if this were a teen comedy, the stage would be absolutely set. We've got our handsome protagonist with the good-looking girlfriend, his goofy comic-relief friend whose date screams "wacky trouble" from a mile off, and the shy, mousy-but-by-no-means-ugly girl, who, a little preoccupied with ideas of love and romance, resolves to transform herself into a beauty capable of luring the protagonist away from his bitchy-but-gorgeous-but-really-bitchy girlfriend and teaching him the meaning of True Love.
That's not a horror movie, though (well, from a sociocultural, gender-roles perspective it kind of is), that's a breakout role for an ingenue from the Disney Channel farm team. And that's not why we're here, and that's not what The Loved Ones is. From jump, it's shot through with all sorts of notes discordant to the easy narrative. Brent isn't teen-movie tormented. He has something seriously wrong with him, as the drugs and fresh self-inflicted scars on his torso attest - scars made by a razor blade he wears on a chain around his neck. Holly isn't bitchy at all. She really loves and cares about Brent. And Lola?
Lola's just standing there, watching.
Come the day of the dance, everyone's getting ready. Brent gets into some back-and-forth with his mom - she's even more haggard than Brent is, and his father is completely absent. It's as we expected - Brent's dad died in that crash, and nothing has been the same since. Brent's mom doesn't want him in a car and definitely doesn't want him driving. A lot goes unsaid between them. Holly's making herself beautiful. Jamie's doing the best he can with what he has. Brent goes for a run to the quarry, leans himself out over the edge holding on to a tree by one hand. He can feel it, the ease of letting go, letting all of the pain and grief sadness go in a single plummet. And then his foot slips, and it all becomes very real. He hauls himself up, and takes a moment to sit there and reconsider…
…only for strong hands to muffle his mouth with chloroform and drag his limp body back to a truck.
Fade up on Brent, in a tuxedo, bound to a chair, sitting at a small dinner table. There's Brent, there's a man, there's a woman (oddly affectless with a strange wound in her forehead)…and there's Lola, resplendent in a pink dress and makeup. The room is festooned with balloons and streamers and end-of-year dance banners.
This is Lola's party.
So this is the situation, and it isn't this that makes the movie as good as it is. Anyone could see the setup coming (this was marketed as a horror movie, not as a teen comedy). No, what makes The Loved Ones excellent is what it does with the setup, the skill with which it does so, and the degree of thoughtfulness that goes into it.
The rest of the movie is concerned with fundamentally parallel storylines - Brent's efforts to survive what's happening to him at Lola's house, Jamie's night at the dance with Mia, and Holly's realization that something's happened to Brent. Like many good teen comedies, it pretty much all takes place in the course of one crazy night. These storylines intersect, sometimes in unexpected ways as we learn more about everyone in this little expanding circle of people. It's especially effective because all of the juxtaposition and cross-cutting gives us just enough relief from the horror of Brent's ordeal to sharpen it when we return to it, and even the comedic moments with Jamie and Mia are believably awkward and cringe-inducing. Holly reaches out to Brent's mom, and the two of them talk (and don't talk) about what's happened in Brent's life as they both wonder if they've lost someone else. It's intimate enough to give us plenty of opportunity to empathize with all of the protagonists, which makes what's happening to them even worse.
It's less easy to empathize with our antagonists, but their monstrosity is framed against a prosaic setting. Lola lives in a modest home, in a pink bedroom filled with inspirational collages from the Australian equivalent of Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, hearts and flowers everywhere, and she is a monster. Her bedroom isn't deception or façade, it coexists with whatever black, rotten thing remained when something snapped deep inside of her. I'm okay with this, because antagonists tend to lose their power when we know too much about them. This is the banality of evil - a home that looks like everyone else's, except for the parts of it that really, really, really don't. People that look like everyone else, but have things chittering away in their head.
The effective contrasts extend into the cinematography as well. Most people's homes are shot in shadow and soft colors, even during the day, reflecting a sense of grief and loss (even if the reason for that grief isn't immediately apparent). On the other hand, Lola's home is lit plainly, and its homemade prom decorations stand out garishly against the modest, careworn furnishings - a manic smile on a homely face. This has the added effect of locating the horrors visited upon Brent among bright blues, pinks, and yellows instead of the usual po-faced rusty metal, brick, and concrete surroundings, and this gives it an edge-of-hysteric-laughter quality. The juxtaposition of Lola's fairytale ideas of romance with the means by which she achieves them is vivid, sharp, and uncomfortable. Pools of blood, mixed with glitter.
Even the music pulls its weight here, and for the most part, the best I hope for in most horror is that the music not get in the way. Here it's as active a part of the story as anything else. The score heightens tension without being obtrusive, and songs regularly punctuate (or ironically comment upon) the character's self-images and emotional states in meaningful, believable ways. Which makes sense, because they're teenagers, and being an adolescent means having a soundtrack for your life. Brent and Mia listen to aggressive metal (that "wrist-slitting shit", Brent's father called it in a nice little moment of prescience) Jamie listens to garage rock, because he's just a bloke, nothing complicated about him. Lola's theme is a teen pop song that opens with the line "Am I not pretty enough?" That communicates volumes about her, and it's devastating.
All of this is done with great narrative economy - we understand who these people are and what their relationship is to each other through small beats - conversations, looks, little reveals that gradually fill in the bigger picture. Very little is wasted in this film, but it rarely feels obvious. Even when it is a little obvious, it doesn't feel like something is being set up to be important later on as much as an important part of this character ends up coming in handy, sometimes in ways ironic to their original context. Little beats play out in the background without too much attention being called to them, and as the night's events play out, our understanding of the larger picture fills in bit by bit until the enormity of what has happened to this little group of people reveals itself.
And it manages all of this without sacrificing a real visceral sense of terror - this is a very violent movie, but the violence isn't gratuitous. It communicates the stakes for which Brent is playing. Terrible things happen head-on so there is no mistaking just how bad things are and how much worse they're going to get. And as bad as the situation is on its face, it still manages to find ways of getting worse that we might not expect, and being confronted with that again and again creates a feeling of profound anxiety and discomfort. Just when you think you know where it's going, shit gets even worse. It starts off as one kind of story, becomes another, and another, and another, until we are well and truly down the rabbit hole, but it never feels jarring, like something was inserted for the sake of cheap shock. It all makes sense, and so it feels like a nightmare - we turn a corner, and there are new horrors there facing us.
In the end, the emerging understanding of what everyone is going through, has been through, blurs the sharp contrasts so effective in the beginning. The climax is as blackly funny as anything I've seen without actually being played for comedy, in imagery that is simultaneously silly and awful in equal proportion, but the initially comic elements turn into something sadder as well. We all expect the antagonist in a film like this to victimize people directly, but here we also get a sense of all of the people Lola has victimized indirectly as well, the emotional cost that she has levied on the living as well as the physical cost levied upon the dead. There are no shocking twists, no last-minute revelations or stingers, just the inexorable awareness that there are awful people in the world, they can't always be explained, they take away what we love, and all we can do is climb out of the dark and face them.
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