There have been many in the history of subversive, independent features who have broken down barriers, inspired new generations of filmmakers and – albeit clichéd – have simply pushed the envelope. Many of these films have found their audiences through venues such as the Cannes Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival.
The latter premiered a small film last year, Deborah Kampmeier’s “Hounddog.” The film has been sitting in distribution hell due to it controversial nature involving a hotly debated rape scene involving America’s sweetheart Dakota Fanning. This week, the questionable film finally gets a director’s cut theatrical release. The movie will no doubt find an audience those curious to see what the big deal is – however, the important matter is whether or not “Hounddog” is actually a good piece of filmmaking.
Regrettably, against the tradition of independent innovation, “Hounddog” is neither exciting nor enjoyable in any way.
The story is of young Lewellen (Fanning), a girl who lives only for the music of Elvis Presley. She is famous in her small southern town for doing cutesy versions of Elvis’ songs. Her home life is not completely unfavorable, and while there are insinuations of occasional abuse, there are no inflammatory scenes shared between Lewellen and her father (David Morse) or his new live-in girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn).
She has odd relationships with the other children including Buddy (Cody Hanford) and the new milkman, a character oddly named Wooden’s Boy (Christoph Sanders), who both are attracted to Lewellen and her provocative Elvis interpretations.
The surprising arrival of her musical hero creates a flutter of excitement for Lewellen, and in her blindness for the acquisition of tickets the nasty Wooden’s Boy takes advantage of her in the now infamous rape scene. The scene is, in fact, the only of merit within the entire picture in terms of acting and dramatic camera presentation. It’s uncomfortably tense and extremely hard to watch, mostly due to Fanning’s portrayal of fear (her only moment of above average acting in the whole piece).
Unfortunately, the scene feels out of place – and is not warranted by any previous action. It is not obvious that this character is in any domestic plight, and while the rape scene is meant to prove a turning point in Lewellen’s maturation – it just feels unsettling without artistic reason. The attack is unexpected, and we do not need to see it. It’s subversive only for the sake of being subversive.
The attention that has been given to the scene is ridiculous. These kinds of scenes have been in movies for years, and it is not until now that any film has received the stigma that “Hounddog” has unluckily received. Anyone who saw Ben Affleck’s 2007 crime drama “Gone Baby Gone,” can attest that the imagery of child abuse is much more shocking than any scene in Kampmeier’s film. Had Affleck’s movie starred a starlet like Fanning we would have heard the same complaints. Had “Hounddog” featured an unknown actress, this film would have gone completely unnoticed.
The rest of the film is also utter cinematic backwash. We’ve seen these characters, scenarios, and motifs many times. Kampmeier has asked those opposed to her film to view it in terms of art rather than irresponsible filmmaking. Needless to say, it’s hard to view the film as groundbreaking or moving.
The film is filled with clichés. Fanning’s character has the familiar story of a young girl who is unsure of herself, but through the wisdom of the old, gravel-voiced African-American workman and the comfort of escape through Penn’s character – who is ridiculously named “Stranger Lady” – she is finally able to become a young woman.
For those who watch this loathsome movie out of pure curiosity, the most memorable aspect will neither be Ms. Fanning or the film’s detestable episode but rather the absurd performance and characterization of her father by the often impressive David Morse (who just stunned television viewers as George Washington in HBO’s miniseries “John Adams). Early in the film, Daddy is struck by lightning (in a poorly shot scene) and becomes incapacitated for a time and then mentally challenged. Movie history has provided us with excellent performances of special needs characters, ranging from Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” to Leonardo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” Morse is ineffectual in the role, and seems to be mocking the afflicted. He overplays to the point of unintentional comedy.
It’s exceedingly difficult to watch this film. Kampmeier had the chance to make a film with an excellent message against abuse but instead delivers an inadequate character drama. Fanning is pointless in the role, and should stick to her roots in family films rather than trying to push into rebellious parts such as this.
At one point in the film, Morse’s character explodes under the pressure of his illness and madly shouts “I can’t stand it anymore!” David, we share the feeling.