DVD Review: Robin McLeavy Knocks ‘Em Dead in ‘The Loved Ones’
CHICAGO – Sean Byrne’s “The Loved Ones” is one of those cinematic curiosities so gleefully depraved and unapologetically looney that it appears to have been conceived in an insane asylum. There is no logical reason why this picture should work at all, and yet it has been made with such conviction that I couldn’t help watching it in a state of slack-jawed awe.
The premise is resoundingly simple: boy meets girl, boys rejects girl, girl kidnaps and tortures boy in the secluded privacy of her home. What’s strange is that the girl, Lola (Robin McLeavy), isn’t given any proper setup. She has only a single line of dialogue before her true nature is revealed, though McLeavy delivers it with such painfully vulnerable sincerity that she somehow manages to establish a fully realized character in a matter of seconds.
DVD Rating: 3.0/5.0
Of course, it becomes clear that Byrne (in his feature directorial debut) has no intention of having his anti-heroine inspire “Carrie”-like empathy. She’s a natural-born sadist without a single redeeming quality, aside from the fact that she’s the most interesting person onscreen. Her victim, Brent (Xavier Samuel), looks like one of the Hanson Brothers and is reeling from guilt after a freak car accident resulted in the death of his father. There are hints early on that Byrne may have been aiming for serious drama in his sequences with Brent, and the initial juxtaposition of tragedy and jet-black humor is disconcertingly uneven. Yet once Brent awakens in his newfound captivity, the film hits its stride. The young man’s initial glimpse at his surroundings is genuinely eerie: he’s seated at a festive table across from Lola’s wild-eyed father (John Brumpton) while a disco ball hovers overhead. Also seated at the table are Lola, decked out in full prom queen garb, and a withered old woman referred to as “Bright Eyes” (Anne Scott-Pendlebury), who looks barely alive. It’s here that Brent will endure all sorts of hideous physical and psychological abuse, and the violence isn’t all that different from the usual torture porn carnage. The key difference here is Byrne’s approach: he seems more influenced by Peter Jackson than Eli Roth. No matter how bloody the onscreen brutality becomes, it is underscored by the comic surrealism inherent in Simon Chapman’s cinematography and McLeavy’s go-for-broke performance.
The Loved Ones was released on DVD on September 11, 2012.
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment
It’s sort of morbidly refreshing to see a horror picture in which the gender roles are switched. There’s even a moment involving force-fed chicken that evokes the notorious NC-17-rated sequence in “Killer Joe.” With her lethal adorability and ghoulish giddiness, McLeavy often resembles a blood-spattered Gloria Grahame. She’s utterly mesmerizing and the chief reason why this movie is worth a look. Byrne also wisely provides the audience some breathing room with a cheeky subplot involving Brent’s pudgy friend, Jamie (a delightful Richard Wilson), and his date with brooding goth girl, Mia (Jessica McNamee). Since Mia abruptly materializes at the same instant as Lola, the viewer naturally expects her to wreak similar havoc on Jamie, yet Byrne skillfully subverts expectations every step of the way. As a drama, the film doesn’t really work at all, and is further marred by the inexpressive, oddly sinister character of Brent’s mother, who may be emotionally distraught, but doesn’t even flinch at the precise moment when flinching would be considered mandatory. Yet as a preposterous satire on adolescent mood swings and gut-wrenching infatuation, Byrne’s film is some sort of crazed triumph, epitomized by the deliciously ironic moment when Lola mumbles through the lyrics of Kasey Chambers’s “Not Pretty Enough.” Midnight movie fanatics who appreciate a good sick joke will find themselves right at home.
“The Loved Ones” is presented in its 16:9 aspect ratio, accompanied by English, French and Spanish subtitles and includes interviews with McLeavy, Samuel and special effects makeup supervisor Justin Dix (Byrne is conspicuously absent). McLeavy seems halfway sincere when she voices her hope that the film will increase audiences’ empathy for “the plight of the lonely teenager,” and says that the film takes a fantastical approach in exploring the real issues facing young people. She saw Lola as a lonely, insecure girl who felt comfortable and empowered only while at home. It’s these nuggets of truth that make McLeavy’s performance so deeply unsettling and deliriously enjoyable.