Hounddog (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hounddog Poster

Hounddog began its public life at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it was inauspiciously dubbed "the Dakota Fanning rape film." Poor audience and critical reception led the director to "re-work" the movie, which emerged from limbo for limited distribution nearly two years after its initial film festival showing. It seems destined for a quick one-week run in a few theaters before rushing to video stores, where it will gather dust. A failure on pretty much every level, Hounddog would never have been known beyond Park City had it not been for the notoriety surrounding the rape scene.

The story transpires in Alabama (although it was filmed in North Carolina) during the late 1950s and, if there's one thing Hounddog gets right, it's a sense of time and place. The visuals are evocative of rural living and the soundtrack, which is alive with the sounds of locusts and grasshoppers, pulls the viewer in. Unfortunately, writer/director Deborah Kampmeier doesn't know what to do with an audience once she has gotten its members into her world. The film's lead character, Lewellen (Dakota Fanning), is a precocious 12-year old who almost never acts anything close to her age. She's a writer's construct, not a living, breathing human being.

For the movie's first half, not much happens, and a creeping sense of boredom sets in. We meet Lewellen's father (David Morse); her grandmother (Piper Laurie); her best friend, Buddy (Cody Hanford); and her father's newest girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn). There's a throw-away line about her father abusing her, but we never see him raise a hand to her. He does, however, kill her dog and beat up his girlfriend. Eventually, God gets even by striking him with lightning in a scene so poorly realized that many viewers will howl with laughter. After that, he spends the rest of the movie imitating Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Lewellen is a big Elvis fan and she constantly performs nails-on-the-blackboard bad versions of the King's hits while humping, grinding, and gyrating - often in her underwear. The highlight of her life comes when she learns that Elvis is going to perform a local concert.

The rape comes about midway through the film and is presented with sufficient restraint to deflect most criticism. There's nothing gratuitous or exploitative about the scene; it's accomplished with as much taste as is possible while still conveying the horror of the act. As she's being violated, the camera cuts from Lewellen's face to her bloody hand (being penetrated by a nail), then to the shocked expression of an onlooker while she screams in the background. Hounddog could have been forgiven for the lackluster lead-up to this event had it followed up with something intelligent or keenly observed.

After the rape, the movie stumbles from one unlikely story development to the next. It never provides a coherent or compelling picture of how a girl in Lewellen's situation copes with what has been done to her. She's ashamed and her spirit is broken - that much we get. What we aren't provided with is a credible portrait of how she overcomes the trauma and recovers control. Instead, there are a plethora of subplots that have little to do with Lewellen, some mystical mumbo-jumbo involving snakes, and an all-knowing black man who soothes Lewellen's spirit with his words of healing. The upshot of everything seeming to be that only after being raped does Lewellen feel things deeply enough to be able to sing the blues. Hounddog's payoff scene has her crooning a bluesy/gospel version of the title song with tears in her eyes. The film's final moments send a garbled message about what we're supposed to take away from this unpleasant experience.

Hounddog is relentlessly downbeat, but not in a way that provides empathy for the character or her situation. That's supposed to be the goal, but Lewellen isn't written with enough deftness for this to occur as the movie clobbers her with one bad experience after another. Here's a partial catalog: her daddy beats her (apparently), he shoots her dog, her deeply religious grandmother displays no evidence of love or affection, her daddy's encounter with a lightning bolt leaves him a simpleton, she is betrayed and raped, and she is cheated out of seeing Elvis. The cumulative effect of these bad things isn't to make one understand the tragedy of Lewellen's life better, but to wish the movie concludes as swiftly as possible.

There's no doubting that Dakota Fanning is a gifted young actress, but this is a poor match for her abilities. She is at times good but there are occasions in which she's obviously giving a performance, where her natural charm is overcome by the need to act. Meanwhile, David Morse and Piper Laurie play their characters as such exaggerated clich├ęs that they come close to treading into parody territory.

Hounddog is an unappealing mess. It provides minimal insight into its characters and their circumstances and compounds this problem with erratic pacing that threatens to bore the viewer to sleep during the first half before piling on the contrivances during the second. Take away the "hound" part of the title and you have an appropriate descriptor of this production.

Hounddog (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2008-09-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1