The Loved Ones (2009)

The Loved Ones first published by EyeforFilm

“Have you heard about the lonesome loser
Beaten by the queen of hearts every time?
Have you heard about the lonesome loser?
He’s a loser but he keeps on trying.”

Sean Byrne’s feature debut The Loved Ones opens with these lyrics from Little River Band’s Lonesome Loser, playing over shots of a quiet, lifeless country town. An old car comes into view – at the wheel, cocky teenager Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel) ribs his father about the outmodedness of both the song and the vehicle, when suddenly a bloody, shirtless figure appears in the middle of the road, causing Brent to swerve hard and fast into a tree. 

Six months later, Brent is a shadow of his former self. Devoured by guilty feelings that his widowed mother Carla (Suzi Dougherty) is not yet ready herself to help him address, he is now traumatised, alienated, and rawly vulnerable, getting through each day in a delirium of dope and self-harm – and even his loving girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) despairs of having a future with such an ’emotional retard’. Yet if Brent has now become the lonesome loser himself, he is also, on the eve of the school prom, about to meet his own cruel queen of hearts – in the form of Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), a spoilt little psychopath who will stop at nothing to make Brent join her in a danse macabre under a makeshift mirror ball, aided by her doting daddy Eric (John Brumpton), as well as a hammer, knives, a fork and a power drill. A good thing then that Brent is no stranger to pain.   

Here, the domestic damage runs deep. There is not just the psychotic dysfunction of Lola and Eric, played out with the sort of shrill hysteria that is darkly, uncomfortably funny – there is also the fragile grief of Brent and Carla for their late father/husband, the self-destructive behaviour of teen goth Mia (Jessica McNamee) and the cold neurosis of Mia’s parents. For while The Loved Ones certainly traces with grotesque glee the sadistic ravages played out by the father-and-daughter team upon Brent’s flesh and bone, the film also documents the damage wrought upon the community at large by unexplained loss and death. This is ‘torture porn’ with an unusual – and commendable – attention to the broader ramifications of its own acts of violence, showing how, when one individual suffers, everybody hurts. 

That said, this is also a joyous genre mash-up of John Hughes-style adolescent anxieties and drill-bit depravities (call it ‘torture prom’), all married in McLeavy’s wonderfully unhinged turn as a pretty-in-pink princess of perversion – and its strange blend of tacky teenage kicks, graphic physical suffering and serious character drama just adds to the mood of extreme unease that writer/director Byrne so carefully cultivates, to the betterment of both the comedy and the horror. We are left squirming in our seats, never quite knowing whether to laugh, cry or hurl, as The Loved Ones drives its thrill ride right into the skull.   

© Anton Bitel