The first fifteen minutes of The Loved Ones promise an intriguing character study. But then, out of nowhere, it devolves into a confused, disgusting, sadistic, pointless revenge fantasy, one that exists more for the horror and shock value than for anything else. If there is something to be gleaned from this story, and I mean on a level apart from violence and gore effects, I have absolutely no idea what it is. I toyed with the idea that it might have been a veiled commentary on the trauma of being a teenager, but to be perfectly honest, I was blindly grasping at straws in an attempt to sound knowledgeable – or, at the very least, to come off as understanding of this particular film. I have no doubt that the audiences it’s intended for will somehow find a way to apply meaning to it. They always do, even when it’s obvious that there’s really nothing to apply.
But let’s examine that initial fifteen minutes. We begin with a high school senior named Brent (Xavier Samuel) driving with his father on a back road somewhere in the middle of Australia. Brent swerves to avoid a bloody and shirtless teenage boy, who has wandered onto the road. The car then smashes into a tree. Brent’s father is killed. Six months later, Brent has fallen into a depression, perpetuated in part by his equally distant mother, who deep down blames her son for her husband’s death. Apart from his friend, Jamie (Richard Wilson), and his girlfriend, Holly (Victoria Thane), he avoids most social contact. He numbs himself with indecipherable rock music and pot. He has started cutting himself, as evidenced not only by the scars on his side but also by the razor he has on a chain hanging around his neck.
It’s time for the senior dance party. While packing his backpack at his locker, Brent is approached by a pretty but clearly insecure girl named Lola (Robin McLeavy). She timidly asks him to the dance. Brent does not rudely reject her; he simply apologizes and explains that he’s already going with Holly. Brent walks away. Lola stands there, humiliated and dejected. Not long after, Brent leaves his house in a controlled fury, his mother clearly unhappy with the fact that Holly will be driving Brent to the dance despite the fact that she has earned her license. Brent goes to a secluded cliff-side area to smoke his new stash of pot and not feel. At his side is his dog, who he obviously cares about. Because he’s listening to music on his MP3 player, Brent doesn’t hear it when a man sneaks up behind him. There’s no time to react when the man covers Brent’s mouth and nose with a rag soaked in what I suspect is chloroform.
And that’s the point at which the film loses its way. Brent comes to in the dining room of Lola’s house, tied to a chair in front of a dinner table. Lola is there too; she’s in a pink prom dress and has decorated the room to look like the scene of a school dance, complete with a working mirror ball. Also present is Lola’s father, referred to exclusively as Daddy (John Brumpton), the man who drugged and kidnapped Brent. Finally, there’s an unknown woman known only as Bright Eyes (Anne Scott-Pendlebury), who sits there like a vegetable with a hole in her forehead. We learn that Daddy and Lola are unusually close, and that he helps his daughter perpetuate her ... tendencies towards teenage boys. They both spend the rest of the night subjecting Brent to numerous acts of torture and maiming. They ruin his voice by injecting his throat with cleaning fluid. They hammer knives through both of his feet. They carve a heart onto his chest, after which Lola makes the open wounds burn with some kind of powder. And so on.
Apart from the fact that these scenes are needlessly excessive, the film is severely weakened by an awkward structure. We understand that Brent is somewhere being tortured, and we know that Holly, Brent’s mother, and a cop are all worried and make a plan to find the missing young man. But what are we to make of a subplot featuring Jamie and his date, Mia (Jessica McNamee), a moody and rebellious goth chick who just happens to be the cop’s daughter? Not only does nothing scary or upsetting happen to these characters, they’re not even connected to the main plot. We see them go to the dance, get high on pot in Jamie’s car, spend a little time at the dance, get kicked out for being too bawdy, and then return home. That’s it. Did writer/director Sean Byrne cut and paste these scenes from an entirely different movie?
Things take a gory and unpleasant new turn for Brent, and for the audience, with the introduction of an electric drill and a kettle of boiling water. This eventually paves the way for the secret of what lies underneath the floorboards of Lola’s house. This, along with a presentation of Lola’s disturbing scrapbook album, seriously calls into question the plausibility of her obsessive behavior patterns. If she were as prolific a monster as she appears to be, it seems quite unlikely that she or her father would have gotten away with it as long as they had. But I know that it’s useless applying logic to a film like this. The Loved Ones had a promising start, but it rapidly fell victim to the horrific, exploitive whims of the filmmakers. Had the story relied less on gore and more on character development, it just might have worked.