“Hounddog” is an indigestible gumbo of Southern Gothic ingredients seasoned with snake oil, biblical hash and thoroughly unpalatable spice. Deborah Kampmeier’s second feature became notorious even before its premiere as the “Dakota Fanning rape movie.” The problem, however, is not that pivotal scene, which is tastefully handled, but the fact that, after a reasonably atmospheric, if uneventful, first hour, the picture runs right off the rails. Aside from Fanning and the controversy, the film has nothing going for it commercially; sales are likely due to the cast, but paying customers will be scarce.
Set in the 1950s, Kampmeier’s script, which she struggled to get made for 10 years, recycles a laundry list of staples from the Southern literary repertoire: dissolute white trash dad, Bible-quoting granny, intimations of incest, cocky good ol’ boys, the good Negro, the primacy of the blues and Elvis infatuation. Add some over-the-top symbolism about snakes in the Garden of Eden and the violation of innocence and you’ve got “Hounddog,” which repeats the famous song so often (in various versions) that you leave not wanting to hear it again for a year.
Opening interludes are drenched in swampy sweat and sex, as barely prepubescent kids Lewellen (Fanning) and Buddy (Cody Hanford) scamper through the woods to find a secluded place where Buddy can show Lewellen his privates in exchange for a kiss. Lewellen shortly explains that one day she’s going to kill her daddy and cut off his privates in the bargain.
When the spirited, irrepressible Lewellen gets back to the rural shack she calls home, it’s clear her ratty-looking daddy (David Morse) has just finished having sex with a new woman on the scene (Robin Wright Penn), a character referred to as “Strange Lady” in the credits. Also in residence is Granny (Piper Laurie), whose conversational range extends only to observing how evil her sinning relatives are. The only thing missing is a cameo by Carroll Baker as a notorious, long-lost aunt.
With scarcely enough narrative line to be called a plot, the film advances with all the momentum of a long hot summer. Lewellen continually bumps and grinds in Elvis fashion, to the distinct disapproval of Granny, and schemes with Buddy to get tickets to an upcoming local Elvis concert; the two kids play grown-up, dressing up and pretending to drink and smoke, with her kissing him a lot; a little rich girl nicknamed Grasshopper (Isabelle Fuhrman) arrives for the summer at the mansion nearby, giving Lewellen a rival for Buddy’s attention, and Daddy returns from a spell away only to get blasted off his tractor by a bolt of lightning, which turns him into a babbling idiot.
There’s nothing terribly compelling about these preliminaries; it’s all a tad studied and familiar, but the performers, and Fanning especially, bring color and energy to the characters, and the atmospherics are strong, thanks notably to the light-dappled, discreetly framed lensing of Ed Lachman and Jim Denault (Lachman was the original d.p. but had to leave after two weeks due to a prior commitment; Denault shot for four weeks and, after a break, gaffer Stephen Thompson took over for the final stanza.)
The big scene arrives nearly an hour in, as Lewellen is lured into a barn, tricked and raped by a minor character one can identify from his initial entrance as bad news. It’s entirely clear what’s going on, but Kampmeier handles it with finesse, keeping Lewellen offscreen most of the way but filling the soundtrack with her screaming. It’s over relatively quickly, and when Lewellen is finally seen in the immediate aftermath, she looks drained of color, her youth and innocence suddenly vanished.
From here, one wants to stick close to Lewellen to study her reactions and decisions. Instead, the Strange Lady returns to distracting effect, Daddy starts running naked through town, Granny totes her shotgun around, and a plane’s worth of snakes begins materializing everywhere, a matter tended to by a wise black man (Afemo Omilami), a horse trainer who endeavors to restore a measure of physical and psychic health to both Strange Lady and Lewellen.
To reference a certain Southern author to whom Kampmeier is clearly not oblivious, there is much sound and fury here signifying very little, and loads of vile behavior, beginning with the rape but scarcely confined to it, to scant point. The almost desperate dredging for themes and meaning in the late-going reps a sad and tedious spectacle.
In line with the director’s seriousness of intent, the actors all go for broke. Fanning does nothing to diminish one’s regard for her spectacular talents, even with such suspect material. Morse jumps bravely into the deep end to embrace his cracked role, while Wright Penn’s part is a muddle. Hanford gamely tries to keep pace with thoroughbred Fanning in their numerous scenes together, while chanteuse Jill Scott gets off the best rendition of the title song in an impromptu jam with local musicians.