With the final, beat-down low arrival of HOUNDDOG (2007) onto DVD, we can finally see what all the fuss is about a, and b, actually enjoy a "wild girls coming of age in the swamp" film that's a great showcase for Fanning, and helps cement the face of a micro-genre that includes films as recent as BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007) and PLAIN DIRTY (AKA BRIAR PATCH, 2003) and as early as THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933) and SPARROWS (1928, starring Mary Pickford).
Shot in beautiful golden hues with obvious care, there's poetry of one sort or another to be found in near every frame of HOUNDDOG, with Dakota's wise old soul aura casting extra heaviness and light. She's proving to be the Warren Oates of blond girl actors and this is her BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFRED GARCIA, a disjointed series of scenes--all brilliant in and of themselves--more elegiac than momentum-driven; inspired while being hopelessly contrived.
HOUNDDOG's problems begin with its reliance on overly familiar tropes: the wizened old black man, the dour Christian mom (Piper Laurie stuck in mom of CARRIE); the Faulknerian idiot manchild (dad gets struck dumb by a bold of lightning while riding his tractor); the symbolic "postponed arrival" of some never-seen icon--ala Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean/Julie Newmar, Godot, Fred, Carson McCullers, Erskine Cauldwell--keeping the narrative in gravity and drag. It would all be unbearably trite but the film gets one detail shockingly unsullied: the girl is real... real young.
All good swamp fiction involves underage girls, running wild and without schooling, and married off when they reach the age of 12. Adult women usually play these parts in movies (Erskine Cauldwell adaptations like TOBACCO ROAD in particular). But here all the beauty and horror of the environment is filtered through Dakota Fanning's big, haunted eyes, and HOUNDDOG takes off like a fucked-up kite.
Great sound editing, with huge beds of rustling leaves and subliminally rattling snakes in all channels, helps along the ominous mood created by an upcoming scene which we already read about, tainting all the whole first half of the movie like an ominous cloud in the distance on beach day. Nothing quite like trying to enjoy the bucolic splendor of a girl's coming of age story knowing there's a controversial rape scene coming... the appearance of every new male in the cast carries a queasy charge, and we doubt she'll pick up a shotgun and get her backwoods revenge.
But the main problem is the wizened old black man philosopher. His tan shirt unstained as if he just wandered off from central casting, he already reached his maximum cliche-overuse point a few years ago in THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE. Afemo Omilami and his character are just way too "safe" and unassuming to captivate us with such self-help book-level wisdom ("snake medicine men" turn poison to healing medicine; it's "what ya gotta do in your heart" -- "people got to treat you with respect" etc.) Rather than add some genuine voodoo bluesman menace which would make his later liking of Dakota have some weight, he's so harmless he might as well be filling in for Wilfred Brimley in a Country Time Lemonade ad. His type was turned on its ear and booted out the door by the might of Samuel Jackson in BLACK SNAKE, and director Deborah Kampmeier should know--based on the controversy of the actress/material--that all eyes are watching her - both supportive and hostile-- and none of them seem to be meddling with the script, so why not go for broke? Why rely on tired conventions that only work at Sundance script workshops and fifth grade English classes?
But again, Dakota saves it. There's a haunted look in her eyes; her past life genius has leaked over thanks to evolutionary genetics. Carrying that much "awake" presence through the gauntlet of soul crushing that is childhood--whether as a child actress or as a swamp girl--must be tough. We want to rush into the narrative and spirit her past the throngs of morlocks and into the safety of a more enlightened future. Fanning navigates the terrain here and meta-textually we pray that fierce light in her eyes won't go out when she finally starts dating and shopping and putting on too much make-up and doing drugs and all those other clouds that block out a young girls' inner light when they hit their teenage years.
Even when she's stuck with dreary lines in trite scenes--like asking the wise black man if god strikes us dead for our sins-- she's adding haunting layers of depth, playing as it lays, with all the gravity and playful ease of Brando playing with that kitten in the opening scenes of the THE GODFATHER. She is in short, a titan - the Rolling Stones to Shirley Temple's Beatles. She's so far ahead of everyone in the cast--acting-wise and character-wise--that it's terrifying. It even slithers into the script, as when Robin Wright Penn's 'mystery lady' exclaims: "Her eyes are so big they scare me!`
Other films that get marginalized and condemned due to the sensitive nature of pre-adolescent sexuality and trauma: TIDELAND, BLUE CAR, LOLITA, THIRTEEN, BABY DOLL. They make "adults"--the popular press, audience members and church groups--nervous and in that "suppress-and-shelf" sort of mood. A girl's budding sexuality poses a threat not only to herself but to the entire patriarchal system. She's Dorothy but everyone treats her like she's the tornado. It's sad, for example, that HOUNDDOG is known only as "the Dakota Fanning rape movie." It should be known as Dakota on the half-shell. She floats into maturity on a stale swamp of cliches, but she floats resplendent.
The loudest complaints about HOUNDDOG's rape scene (it's short and scary) will probably be from folks who want their sleazy bayou movies to be trauma-free. If there's gonna be an "under-age swamp girl" ala MUDHONEY, GATOR BAIT, TOBACCO ROAD (with Gene Tierney, pictured right, playing 14-year old Ellie May) SHANTY TRAMP or POOR WHITE TRASH that's fine, but the girl should be played by someone clearly at least 18... so all the leering is somehow made "safe." With Dakota on the scene there shall be no safe leering, and that is the danger of her genius: she reverses the polarity and makes you blush and look away even if you're alone watching this on TV in the dead of night. You want to censor and bury this film, because for all its faults you know Dakota is a real, inarguable, chthonic force of feminine nature that will destroy all in its path. Even if you suppress all her films and keep her in chains of boyfriends and lipsticks and teen rapists for decades to come, she will still bury you. You ain't never caught a rabbit and you're already dust in the wind.