Promising enjoyably old-fashioned Southern Gothicism for a while, Catherine Crouch’s debut feature “Stray Dogs” starts creaking as slowly and surely — albeit more slowly than surely — as the oldest barn door in the county once the meller-drammatick goods actually arrive. Adapted from Julie Jensen’s stage play, pic still smacks very much of sawdust. But the bigger problem is a story focus so stolid and heavy-handed it might well have seemed antique a half-century ago. Technically competent production (shot in 35mm, but shown at S.F. Gay Fest in projected Beta) is best suited to cable slots.
“Dogs” is a far cry from the vivid modernity of Cheryl Dunye’s “The Stranger Inside,” which Crouch co-wrote, though it takes itself just as seriously. That’s a mixed blessing: Director-adapter’s tight rein on perfs that might easily have gone over the top builds some tension, but poker-faced approach only makes the climactic standoff seem more ludicrous and hackneyed.
While script’s hothouse conflicts just might have worked onstage, translation to screen naturalism (even if action remains largely limited to a single interior) only makes it seem more theatrically contrived. Comparisons to “Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” “Paris Trout” and other high-end Southern mellers are apt if disheartening; alas, “Poor White Trash,” “Shanty Tramp” and other lowbrow exploiters on the same turf prove equally relevant in the end.
Guinevere Turner (“Go Fish,” “American Psycho”) plays Darla Carter, who’s finally fed up with her drunken, violent, underemployed and oft-absent husband after 12 years spent in his poor clan’s Appalachian mountain shack. News that he’s gotten fired (from “the chicken factory”) yet again — plus concerns about her own newly discovered pregnancy — fuel resolve to toss the lout out.
But Darla can’t handle his likkered-up ire alone. She thus asks her burly, pants-wearing sister-in-law to stick around, seemingly blind to all signs that Jolene (Dot-Marie Jones) hopes to take the no-good brother’s place as loving husband, father and bedmate.
Darla’s two preadolescent boys nervously await the inevitable blowout, with brainy sensitive type J. Fred (Ryan Kelly) retreating behind his overbearing born-again Christian righteousness, while 8-year-old hellion Reese (Zach Gray) is more pragmatic.
After nearly an hour, Myers Carter (Bill Sage) finally shows up, duly lubricated and ornery. Rather than heat things to a boil, however, climax grows tepid with verbiage — absurdly, Myers challenges sapphic sis to a “winner take all” contest determined by who can name all the chapters of the Bible.
Yakfest-under-pressure seems to go on forever, rendering both preposterous and distasteful the simultaneous physical peril suffered by all. Bloody consequences are followed by a drawn-out final scene suggesting survivors will start afresh, but pic has never achieved the desired catharsis, let alone basic credibility.
Glimmers of humor here and there aren’t enough to offset overall theatricality, thudding portent and tone of somber sensationalism. Perfs are decent, if unable to transcend stagey language or one-note characters. Lesbian aspect is at least offbeat in this context, but script ultimately renders it irrelevant. More predictable, even banal, are the crude finger-wagglings at hypocritical church morality.
Vid print screened seemed a tad blurry, a quality one assumes won’t factor in 35mm form. Marie-Joelle Rizk’s initial countryside photography is pretty, though after an early point the too-few exterior shots are nocturnal. If reasonably slick design/tech package boasts little authentic period flavor (tale is set in 1958), that’s probably more fault of pic’s core blood-and-thunder artificiality, which under different circumstances might easily have worked as lives-of-the-inbred-and-squalid genre parody.