WHO YOU CALLIN’ A HOUNDDOG?
The case for Hounddog needs to be made. No doubt that you’ve heard about the controversy promulgated by folks who have an agenda and, as is typically the case, haven’t yet bothered to see the movie. Early reports tainted the public’s opinion of the film by alleging all manner of sexual misconduct. After seeing the film, I can safely say that Hounddog contains nothing that I found exploitive.
At a public screening at Sundance, writer/director Deborah Kampmeier answered questions head on about how she managed to get the controversial shot, “the rape scene,” as it has been dubbed. Her technique, as I understand, was to shoot her young actress alone, just her, a camera, and her actress—without the sexual component. This way, any question of exploitation can be removed.
But the real the question remains: is the film any good?
Hounddog is a Southern gothic fable, a fantastical view of the region that Erskine Caldwell romanticized in Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, both of which were set in an earlier time. Students of Caldwell know that his novels were demonized and that they received much attention primarily due to the baseness of human nature that was revealed and explored. The ironic thing about the world “created” by Caldwell was that it wasn’t a parody; rather, it was a fairly accurate depiction of life as it once was, where people acted out of desperation.
As with Caldwell’s work, the world engendered by writer/director Deborah Kampmeier is dark and dangerous, peopled by forces capable of evil with a warm perverse smile. Lewellen (a stunningly good—no joke—Dakota Fanning) is a barely tween girl living with her father in a decrepit shack behind her grandmother’s home. She’s obsessed with Elvis Presley and, upon request, will break into an amusing version of “Hound Dog,” complete with the swinging hips.
Her father (the always competent David Morse) is a sinister fellow at the beginning of the film who ogles his daughter and romances his sister-in-law (Lewellen’s mother being nowhere to be found). Lewellen’s grandmother (Piper Laurie) is a strict disciplinarian who becomes more and more unhinged as the film progresses.
One day, Lewellen’s father is struck by lightning while plowing a field. Thereafter, he becomes more like Frankenstein’s monster than dear old Dad. And the tall muscular Morse makes this difficult and unforgiving role work as he moans, mopes, and slinks around the family homestead.
Although Dad has become some kind of mentally damaged parody of himself, Lewellen doesn’t seem to be that affected by the transformation. She’s more interested in trying to get tickets to see Elvis, who’s slated to appear in concert somewhere near her community. Given the relative freedom Lewellen is afforded to roam about without supervision, it is likely that something bad is possible. The film is shot in a soft focus, with darkness in the air, giving the film a foreboding tone.
While on one of her excursions, Lewellen visits a horse ranch and plays with a rich girl nicknamed Grasshopper (Isabelle Fuhrman). Innocent and curious, Lewellen talks to anyone and catches the interest of an older boy whose designs on her are insidious. But the dangers to Lewellen are plentiful from humans and nature—snakes have a unique place in Lewellen’s life and visit her nightly. The supernatural twist with snakes only reinforces the fantastical approach to setting the action in the world of nightmare and less in the world in which we inhabit.
Within this construct, writer/director Kampmeier is free to take liberties that color character decision-making and propensities in ways that are off-kilter and even, at times, counter to reality. I especially appreciated little details that grounded the story when it appeared that it was merely an idealized fantasy. For example, in one particularly contained scene, Lewellen assists her Grandmother in making jelly, and an old pair of pantyhose are used as a strainer for the hot liquid solution.
This is really how the stuff is made…just like my grandmother used to make it. But overall, Hounddog isn’t meant to depict things as they really are or might have been. This is a fable, a fairytale in step with the Brothers Grimm: parables that were cautionary stories often featuring children but not originally deemed suitable for children to read.
Remarkably, through an absolute perfect performance by the young movie star Fanning, Hounddog feels bigger than it really is. Fanning, who occupies most every scene, isn’t some cute child trading on her youth and likeability; no, here she influences the events and is the heart of the film. Even when things become predictable, Fanning’s commitment to character carries the film.
And while I thought that Piper Laurie played the grandmother in such an over-the-top manner that it impacted the message of the movie, Fanning remained a whole person who, due to circumstances beyond her control, matures without understanding fully what is happening to her physically or emotionally. Through a clichéd but effective wind-down, Kampmeier brings the story full circle in an ending that we see coming but welcome.
Lewellen’s emotional journey that results in the loss of her innocence will give us pause, because in this largely fantastical world, truth can sometimes be gleaned. Children face dangers everywhere many from the most unlikely sources. The case in favor of Hounddog should be made, the controversy dispelled, and message learned. While the film features children and does contain a horrific rape scene, it is a tasteful cautionary fable and a true fairytale for adults.