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Australia 2009
Directed by
Sean Byrne
84 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

The Loved Ones

Synopsis: Brent (Xavier Samuel) turns down his classmate Lola (Robin McLeavy) when she invites him to be her partner at their graduation prom, little realizing that he is about to enter a world of pain.

The standard reaction to The Loved Ones appears to be to suggest that it is some kind of mutated descendant of Wolf Creek (2005) but the comparison is specious. Yes, they have rural serial killers and youthful victims in common but whilst director/writer Greg Mclean’s powerful debut worked because it made us one with the victims’ nightmare experience, director/writer Sean Byrne’s debut expect us, bizarre as it may seem, to laugh at the same sort of thing. Not that The Loved Ones is a spoof in the Scary Movie sense. It’s more in the developmentally-retarded, violence-is-funny Tarantino-esque realm of “trash cinema”. Tarantino’s influence on young film-makers has been a baleful legacy, as inevitably, derivation results in kitsch and kitsch, no matter how enthusiastically received initially, eventually ends up in the rubbish bin.

Torture porn as comedy? Although the concept seems inherently adolescent perhaps it could have worked. After all, serial killing is hardly a new topic for comedy. Think of Arsenic And Old Lace (1944) or Eating Raoul (1982) for instance. Both films however have two significant differences from The Loved Ones. Firstly the murders and subsequent disposal of the bodies were not seen (or amounted to a bang on the head with a frying pan in the case of Eating Raoul) and secondly both have some discernible wit.

On the other hand a good portion, probably half, of Byrne’s film is devoted to depicting the male victim being tortured and terrorised. One might say that this simply reflects the mainstreaming of increasingly graphic violence but this doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. It just means that audiences are becoming increasingly desensitized to having their heads thrust in the toilet bowl. As The Dude says with phlegmatic resignation in The Big Lebowski (1998) as this literally happens to him, “I’d better have another look at that”. The Coens have made a sizeable contribution to the acceptance of grisly comedy  - think of the mulching scene in Fargo (1996)  - but this film does not belong in their league.  I’ve not seen any of the Saw films but I dare say that The Loved Ones will mainly find its audience amongst the same demographic – adolescents who not long since were pulling the wings off flies for amusement (does anyone really do this? Oh well, you get my drift). At this rate, in ten or fifteen year’s time when those people have kids, The Loved Ones will be the equivalent of a family movie.

The second difference from the earlier entertainments is that there is nothing funny about Byrne’s film. Of course humour is also a question of taste. But here the comedic truism “it’s not what you say but how you say it, that matters” has never been more appropriate  There are a few moments clearly intended to raise a laugh as when Brent falls out of a tree where he has been feebly hiding from his tormentors but it is clumsily executed and John Brumpton’s “This one’s for the Kingswood” line is too clearly a tilt at emulating the kind of catch-cry exemplified by Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny” in The Shining (1980) to fool anyone. Comedy is simply not Byrne’s strong card. And, whilst we’re in the area, if you want evidence that distasteful subject matter can be brilliantly realised think of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).

No-one’s blaming Byrne for not being Kubrick or a Coen. The point that is the aspiration to say something of substance, the sine qua non of any worthwhile film, is absent here, and the comparison to the work of much better craftsmen suggests that the failure of The Loved Ones is not its subject matter so much as how that has been handled. Not only is there a dullness of imagination, the need for literal depiction suggesting  pornography as opposed to erotica, but like porn movies the plot is but a perfunctory vehicle for the physical action, which is frankly, as dumb as it comes.  Perhaps this is intentional but it only further lowers one’s ability to believe that there is anything worthwhile attending to here. (According to Byrne the initial cut of the film was longer and more "serious" but he took the distributors' advice to make it more crowd-pleasing.)

Despite its shortcomings on the content front, the film is quite well made. If Xavier Samuel is rather bland as the victim, one who has an unbelievably high pain threshold, Robin McLeavy and John Brumpton are very good as his demented co-dependent tormentors whilst Richard Wilson as a fumbling young dude and Jessica Mcnamee as his intimidatingly gorgeous date provide some welcome humanity as they head off to the prom (to give their graduation ball its appropriate genre tag). Simon Chapman’s cinematography and Robert Webb’s production design combine well to create an effective setting for the players. And for all my criticism of his film, Byrne’s direction is assured.  No doubt what he does next will depend on his film’s commercial success. Frankly, given that Saw VII 3D is upon us, I’m already worried that marketplace validation will ensure more of the same.





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