Married couple Alison and Tom are knocked out mid-coitus by an intruder. Alison awakes in the kitchen, bound in rope. Similarly tied, Tom comes to in the bath, where he will spend his whole miserable weekend. Aaron, their suave captor seems intent on taking Tom’s place as Alison’s husband, and so begins a dirty weekend of torture, threat and marital revelations.
When it comes to house invasion flicks, Deadly Virtues probably finds its closest bedfellow (at least in aesthetic terms) in Michael Haneke’s oppressive classic Funny Games. Eschewing the surrealistic touches that made that gem so devastating however, director Ate de Jong presents a scenario which is entirely believable, in a setting blandly familiar. As close to a hard blow to the head as a film can get, it’s a tense, shocking and sexually charged genre-blender that plays dangerously with its heavy BDSM element. Not a film perhaps, that one would expect from the director of cult comedy Drop Dead Fred.
Despite its setup, Deadly Virtues couldn’t be further from the sleazy, nihilistic home invasion exploitationers of the seventies. As tight and knotted as Aaron’s rope, the full-steam narrative reveals its many secrets one by one alongside an unusual process of characterisation. We are granted little insight into Alison and Tom’s default behaviour before their ordeal, being as Aaron enters the house in the opening scene. The couple are in a heightened state of terror from the off, their characters revealed through extremes of emotion.
The BDSM element runs throughout the film, making for some striking visuals but also playing a part in the gradual revealing of character. Initially it seems that the threat from Aaron is a purely sexual one, but it soon becomes clear that his motivations are not so primal. The undeniable grace and expertise of his knotwork is contrasted with the cheap bondage gear he finds in the wardrobe; bought by Tom but despised by Alison. As Alison gradually begins to trust Aaron, it is Tom who seems the more animalistic and sexually driven. As his true character is uncovered, we begin to realise that Alison is as trapped in her marriage as she is in the house following Aaron’s intrusion. With Tom out of the equation however, Alison takes control of her own fate, achieving liberation borne of her previously suppressed strength. The film repeatedly plays with our sympathies, revealing different sides to its characters and refusing to paint a clear picture whilst we remain in the house. Though the darker side to Tom’s character is not immediately obvious, he comes across as a bit of a cock from the first time we see him. It’s not wholly obvious whether or not this was the intention, and it’s a shame he doesn’t illicit a little sympathy at first; the water torture begins and as a viewer, you’re not all that bothered.
Aside from its first and last scenes, Deadly Virtues takes place entirely in the middle class home of Alison and Tom, confining us as Aaron does the couple. The cramped and claustrophobic feel is at its most heightened during the bathroom scenes which act almost as chapter headings to each section of narrative. The tiny room seems to exist in its own reality, becoming Tom’s own personal hell for the weekend, occasionally visited by the devil Aaron. Bunched up and bound in the bath, he is subjected to some light water torture and will even lose a couple of digits before the weekend is out, and is left to use his imagination with regard to Aaron and Alison’s activities, going only on what he hears.
Following the questions and moments of revelation which litter the narrative, Ate de Jong leaves no loose ends come the closing moments. Not only does the wry final scene answer the biggest question of all, but also shows with frightening clarity how easily any one of us could fall foul of a real-life Aaron.
A classy and twisty take on the home invasion horror, Deadly Virtues hits hard as a marital drama as much as a psycho-thriller. Provocative and bold in its use of bondage as a narrative device and aesthetic flair, it acts like a weighty and reactionary ‘fuck you’ to the popularised BDSM of 50 Shades mania. Confounding during its first act with regards to where it is headed, it draws the viewer into its web of lies and intrigue as it hurtles towards its sly final moments. As seductive and dangerous as its intrusive antagonist, this sexually charged genre mash-up will keep you bound and restrained, and maybe even begging for more.
Words: Kevan Farrow