‘Hounddog’: Woof, By Kurt Loder

Dakota Fanning, so good in such a bad movie.

Possibly you’ve heard about “Hounddog,” — “the Dakota Fanning rape movie,” the scandal of Sundance 2007 , whatever. Now it’s finally being released, in a very minor way, and we can see, if not understand, what all the commotion was about.

There is a rape scene that involves Fanning, who was 12 years old at the time the picture was filmed, but it lasts less than 30 seconds. It’s not at all explicit, but it’s devastating nevertheless because of the way this uncannily resourceful actress conveys the horror of her character’s violation using little more than the terror in her eyes. It should also be noted that the movie is beautifully filmed — veteran cinematographers Jim Denault and Edward Lachman shot the bulk of it, with gaffer Stephen Thompson stepping in toward the end, and they’ve captured a vibrant array of cornfield greens and loamy woodland browns and the look of mellow sunlight streaming through cheap curtains. There are also some very fine actors in the cast, among them Robin Wright Penn, David Morse and Afemo Omilami. Unfortunately, the movie in which they are marooned is dreadful in just about every other way.

The story is a Southern Gothic gumbo of surpassing gaudiness. The time is the late 1950s, the place some especially benighted part of the South. (The movie was shot in North Carolina.) Little Lewellen (Fanning) is a bored country girl with an abusive father (Morse) and an Elvis fixation. (She breaks into pelvis-twisting renditions of “Hound Dog” much more often than can possibly be good for her, or, after a while, interesting to anyone else.) Also on hand is Lewellen’s Bible-clutching, whiskey-sippin’ Grammie (Piper Laurie) and a strange lady identified in the credits as “Stranger Lady” (Penn).

David Morse, an actor of unusual emotional range, is here limited to two expressive modes. When we first meet him, he’s a cliché backwoods brute (“Grab your daddy a beer”); later, after he’s been knocked off his tractor by a bolt of lightning, he’s a moon-faced simpleton, devoid of any further interest. Penn, for her part, pines and sighs and bruises easily, and is compelled to intone some very silly dialogue: Looking out a window at the collection of clapped-out cars that Daddy has left to rust away in a field, she sighs and says, “Emptiness pilin’ on emptiness. What can he possibly do with all that emptiness?”

The movie is also inhabited by a passel of happy black folks — of a happiness, in fact, not seen since the heyday of D.W. Griffith. One of these grin-prone characters, a man named Charles (Omilami), befriends little Lewellen, and tells her things like, “Missy, you goan fall outta that tree an’ bust yo behind.” Charles is into snakes — but then the whole movie is into snakes, to an extent that could fairly be described as insane. They slither along branches and through tall grass, and occasionally rise up in phallic majesty. Charles milks snakes and eats snakes, and he seems to think that Lewellen has some special relationship to snakes, too. It’s not clear what Lewellen thinks about this. And by the end of the film, after she has been robbed of her virginity and is lying in bed on a hot summer night and a whole herd of snakes come eeling in through her window to gently arrange themselves on and around her body, we don’t know what to think, either. Our minds have shut down in troubled disbelief.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Igor” and “Ghost Town,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Hounddog.”

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