Deadly Virtues (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

A figure (Edward Akrout), his face obscured, walks in a leafy suburban street at night. He pauses, significantly, to tie his shoelace (in a film full of knots and twine), before using a cut key to sneak into an immaculate middle-class home. On his way upstairs towards the sound of vigorous sex coming from the first floor, this stranger hesitates to pick up – and sniff deeply – a discarded high heel, before entering the bedroom where Tom (Matt Barber) is taking his rather disengaged wife Alison (Megan Maczko) roughly from behind. “Mind if I cut in?”, asks the stranger – and the couple’s life is set to change forever.

This intruder’s “many talents” include a keen interest in kinbaku, and accordingly the familiar tropes of home invasion and torture porn come with a fetishistic BDSM kink to their hitch. The stranger knocks Tom unconscious with a ball fashioned from tightly wound rope before trussing him up in the bath and removing two of his digits (including that conventional emblem of marital bondage, the ring finger); and after binding Alison in several knotty configurations, eventually resorts to an ankle chain strung elaborately from twine, before finally setting her free altogether.

With this symbolic tying of knots and fashioning of a ball and chain, the stranger is observantly parodying the ties that bind – and the imbalanced power relations – within Tom and Alison’s marriage. In his stated desire that Alison should want him “the way any loving wife would want her husband”, the initially unwelcome visitor offers Alison a weekend-long course in what she has, what she wants, and how skilled she has already become in both showing conjugal compliance and faking marital contentment. It will turn out that the source of all the film’s genre tensions – the constant threat of humiliation, objectification, violence and rape – is in fact something with which Alison has long been familiar.

Originally called Love. Honour. Obey. (and, like 2000’s similarly titled Love, Honour and Obey, also featuring Sadie Frost), the film has now been renamed as the more generic-sounding Deadly Virtues. Still, either title slyly encapsulates the film’s focus on, and critique of, the wedding bond. Dutch director Ate de Jong (Drop Dead Fred, Highway To Hell) knows his horror formulae inside out, and proves able to assault (or is that seduce?) the viewer’s consent in a cruel game of control and duress – but he prefers confrontational psychology to explicit depravity, and repeatedly withholds the dreaded (and perhaps desired) money shot. Tom may be obsessed with sex (and have de Sade in his book collection), but for the sensualist intruder, and perhaps for Alison too, it is all about the romance.

Asked why he is doing this to Alison, the stranger replies, “Because you asked me to.” Indeed, he is a teacher, an enabler, a counsellor, a catalyst, a fantasy, and perhaps also a convenient scapegoat – but his actions, for all their creepy insidiousness, open our eyes to the real horrors that can exist in more legitimate couplings.

© Anton Bitel