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Southern Discomfort

Dakota Fanning’s revelatory turn in Hounddog; Keira Knightley’s most excellent duchess.


In films, few lines are as confusing as the one between exploration and exploitation, but whatever else it is and isn’t, Hounddog—notorious as “the Dakota Fanning rape movie,” provoking denunciations and even death threats—is not exploitative. Not even close. The film, written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier, unfolds in the fifties in rural Alabama, where the prepubescent Lewellen (Fanning) literally shakes off the oppression of her brutal father (David Morse) and puritanical grandmother (Piper Laurie) by singing Elvis songs and wriggling her body in ecstasy. Fanning has none of the usual child-actor glibness, and her “Hound Dog” renditions are goofy, unself-conscious—and blissful. Motherless, smacked around, Lewellen is an extraordinarily unaffected child in an unsafe world, and when her playmate, Buddy (Cody Hanford), tells her he can get her a ticket to an Elvis concert, she eagerly follows him into a dark barn, where a teenage boy waits in the shadows.

The focus of Hounddog isn’t child-rape, any more than it’s Elvis-worship. The movie is essentially an allegory—of subjugation and emancipation, of liberation through art. The vision is unsubtle but haunting. Kampmeier draws the South as a lazy but dangerous place. The images are stark, the colors drained (dusty browns, scorched yellows, greens without lushness), the magnolia canopies like Gothic arches. The film opens—way too explicitly, I think—with a snake sliding up a branch, and serpents show up everywhere. But Kampmeier finds a way to turn the clunky symbols inside out, to locate the hope within the horror. The poison, she says, can be used and transformed. What is terrible might be the source of what is beautiful.

The agent of healing is a black caretaker, Charles (Afemo Omilami), who knows what repression does to the soul; he gets together at night with his elderly musician buddies and sings the blues. The role is dicey. Blacks in inspirational movies often show up to help white folks find their spiritual core, and Kampmeier could have been craftier. She could have given Charles some idiosyncrasies, some unproductive rage—anything to make him a person instead of a good angel. But like her heroine, she’s guileless—which might, in the end, be what saves the movie.

Hounddog’s ingenuousness puts the ironic detachment of Alan Ball’s Towelhead to shame—although Ball, to be fair, took his cues from the autobiographical novelist Alicia Erian, whose 13-year-old heroine has a more complicated sexuality. But Ball eroticized his protagonist in a way that made us complicit with her violation, while Kampmeier presents Lewellen as a child who’s vulnerable. When the teenage boy asks her to take off her shirt if she wants the ticket, she’s confused, but she almost immediately acquiesces—it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. She has no inkling of what’s about to happen, that this is serious. The rape that follows (it’s not explicit) is neither crudely punishing nor titillating: Lewellen endures it with an air of disbelief. And when it’s over and she keeps it to herself, it’s not out of shame but the brutal realization of her powerlessness. She shuts the windows and bolts the doors. She stops singing.

Hounddog isn’t always so black and white. The father, who shoots Lewellen’s dog, is struck by lightning and becomes a simpleton, and Morse—a cold actor to whom malevolence comes easily—hits childlike, beseeching notes I’ve never heard from him. Lewellen loves him, but there are limits; the wounds he inflicted in his previous incarnation go too deep. Piper Laurie’s grandmother isn’t kin to her overripe demon in Carrie. At the end of each day, she carefully inspects Lewellen for ticks, as she inspects her soul for evil influences. The only character that doesn’t come through is the father’s lover (Robin Wright Penn), who’s called, in the credits, “Stranger Lady.” Wright Penn evidently helped get the film financed, but her big scenes feel shoehorned in. This is Dakota Fanning’s film.

Fanning is a child actor with a grown-up soul, and every move, every breath, seems mysteriously right. Her Lewellen survives by going in and out of her shell, and when she’s out—at play, or bopping and singing—you’re torn between elation at her openness and the urge to cry out a warning. That conflict is never fully resolved, which is why this broad, clumsy movie is so wrenching. Something meaningful will come of Lewellen’s injury. And something precious will be lost.

The Brazilian director José Padilha’s 2002 documentary Bus 174 told the story of a bus taken hostage by an unstable, underclass addict, and the carnage (all televised) that followed owing to police incompetence. It was the rare nonfiction film with the inevitability of classic tragedy, and it made you loathe violence. That’s not the case with Padilha’s Elite Squad, a fictionalized, sympathetic portrait of paramilitary brutality. The angle is ingenious. In this Rio, a city of 700 slums ruled by trigger-happy drug gangs and police on the take, the crackerjack elite squad—the BOPE—is the only viable agent of order. But its captain (Wagner Moura) longs for the warmth of his wife, pregnant with their son. To retire into the bosom of his family, he must train a replacement—which in this case means taking a young black man (André Ramiro) with a social conscience and transforming him into an “unforgiving” enforcer who tortures and kills with impunity.

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