'Hounddog' makes a mess of things

September 19, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Make no mistake, "Hounddog," recut and revised after being derailed by a disastrous premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, is awful. Not, it should be noted, for the scene that unfairly earned the film the unseemly sobriquet of "The Dakota Fanning Rape Movie" but rather because "Hounddog" is a screechingly egregious film for reasons entirely apart from that.

The problems that plague the movie land squarely with the writer, director and producer, Deborah Kampmeier, who has crafted a howler of a bad script, shows little affinity for working with actors and displays no visual sense behind the camera.

The story of the film is meant as a bare-bones Southern Gothic allegory, as a young girl in the rural Deep South of the late 1950s (Fanning) finds herself torn among her strict, religious grandmother (Piper Laurie), her hard-drinking father (David Morse) and a troubled woman who floats through all their lives (Robin Wright Penn). The girl takes refuge in the music of Elvis Presley, singing along whenever she can. When a local boy says he'll give her a ticket to an Elvis show if she sings for him, she does so and then he cruelly rapes her. Her spirit is broken, but then she is shown by a local workman how to really sing the blues, which revives her soul.

The film's awkward, minstrel-esque vision of Southern music and race, with African American laborers happily singing their songs in a hayloft after a long day of work, shows Kampmeier's essential misunderstanding of the explosive intersections in the music of Presley and early, Memphis-style rock 'n' roll. Supposedly the world in which Fanning's character finds her true self, Kampmeier's idea of Southern musical culture seems simplistic and trite. Moreover, her attempts to integrate the iconography of the blues -- snakes, lightning, bare dirt roads and, most especially, music as salvation -- was done more vividly in "Black Snake Moan," another awkwardly received 2007 Sundance title.

As for "the scene," the depiction of the rape of Fanning's character that caused so much controversy and media furor back at Sundance, it is ultimately rather restrained. There is nothing exploitative in its portrayal of the incident, save for Kampmeier's thud of a Jesus reference in having Fanning's character suffer a wound from a nail to her palm.

Fanning escapes the scene, and for that matter the film as a whole, with her dignity intact. Hopefully, someday Fanning will be able to look back on "Hounddog" as a transitional, adolescent footnote on her way to more mature work.


"Hounddog." MPAA rated: R for a disturbing sexual assault of a young girl, and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In limited release.

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