Hounddog is a tragedy of a film, and not in the sense that it strives to be. It's a tragedy, on one level, because it is quite simply an artistic disaster. But mostly it is a tragedy because of the way it uses and abuses its starring actress—the then 12-year-old Dakota Fanning.
It is not surprising that Hounddog, which caused quite a stir at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival as the "Dakota Fanning rape movie," has taken so long to find a distributor and get released. Apart from appealing to dilettante arthouse moviegoers and those drawn to controversy and, well, shocking acts of onscreen barbarism, this film has precious little in the way of mass-market appeal.
Not that it isn't an ambitious effort. Director Deborah Kampmeier tries very hard to craft a Southern gothic mood piece with high art tendencies, somewhere between Flannery O'Conner and David Gordon Green (director of Southern-set art films like George Washington and Undertow). Unfortunately for Hounddog, it ends up being of closer kin to something between a bad John Grisham novel and an art school senior thesis project.
It's a shame, because there are many reasons why this could have been an interesting film. Set in the 1950s South during the days when Elvis was the talk of teen (and preteen) America, Hounddog tackles large-scale gender issues through the prism of small-town social dynamics and domestic melodrama. Fanning plays Lewellen, a 12-year-old girl from an abusive home who finds solace in blues music, particularly that of Mr. Presley. Like most people in the film, Lewellen is struggling with her sexuality, finding very few role models who might guide her through these complicated adolescent years. Her crazy father (David Morse) and grandmother (Piper Laurie) are no help, and the one older female she can relate to (Robin Wright Penn) turns out to be even more confused than she is.
Confusion, by and large, is the word to describe this film. It is muddled with far too many thoughts and images about sex, family, religion, geography, nature, and music to be at all cohesive. The rape scene—mostly off-camera, and you only see Fanning's face and reaction—is about the most straightforward thing in Hounddog, and it comes and goes far too easily and unexamined. There is an intriguing aura of mystery that comes from the film's syncretistic blend of Christian references (Eden is the most obvious) and pagan/witchcraft elements (recalling such films as Sam Raimi's The Gift), but all it adds up to is an annoying and familiar evocation of new age spiritual floundering.
The considerable talents of Hounddog's great cast are largely squandered, with someone as forceful as Wright Penn relegated to a feeble caricature of a battered woman. As Lewellen's father, Morse is similarly weak—his character begins as a goofy parody of a beer-guzzling Southern working man and only gets goofier when, midway through the film, he is struck by lightning and reduced to a slurring, slobbering, shell of a man. Only Laurie seems to understand the ridiculousness of her role; she has a grand time portraying the world's wackiest, Bible-beating grandmother who makes a mean marmalade jam.