Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Tribeca Film releases “Dog Pound” on VOD platforms today. It opens theatrically in New York on March 29.
The opening moments of “Dog Pound” introduce its young subjects in a frenzy of violent acts: Suave 16-year-old Davis (Shane Kippel) gets nabbed by the cops for pushing pills; 15-year-old Angel (Mateo Morales) goes down for assault and auto theft; hot-headed Butch (Adam Butcher) beats up a correctional officer. Immediately after this rapid succession of mini-scenes, director Kim Chapiron delivers the title card as if it were the outcome of a social equation. Despite their different crimes, the boys jointly meet the same fate at the fictional Enola Vale Correctional Center, which takes on the definition of an all-inclusive hell hole. We meet them through their misdeeds first and their personalities second, much like the flawed judicial system that entraps them for the remainder of the story.
Outside of its breathless prologue, the drama of “Dog Pound” remains almost exclusively situated within the drab, claustrophobic prison interior. The trio receive a harsh introduction from Officer Goodyear (Lawrence Bayne, top-notch), whose modus operandi finds him barking simple orders and providing tough love, while hiding his own insecurities beneath the tough guy facade. He eventually falls apart, just like everyone else in this doom-laden tragedy. Chapiron, a French director making his English language debut, did his homework on American juvenile life. “Dog Pound” stealthily reveals its characters’ deepest flaws and the inability of the correctional process to address them.
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Under Goodyear’s watch, the teens gradually settle into the lockdown routine by adhering to its perilous Darwinian logic. In short order, Butch and Davis encounter the assaultive techniques of resident bully Banks, a brutish thug portrayed by a non-professional actor recently released from real juvenile detention prior to the production. His performance exudes hatred and irrational cruelty, which makes for a frighteningly realistic onscreen villain and the ultimate threat to the targets of his rage. In short order, it becomes clear that the fiery Butch will strike back in a superficially enjoyable act of revenge — establishing the possibility that, rather than overcoming his enemy, he might absorb the unmitigated anger instead.
Nimbly focused on tracking its three troubled protagonists through one hellacious conundrum after another, Chapiron takes a few breaks to let them express their professional ambitions, but “Dog Pound” mostly sticks to a one-note progression. The movie never loses its miserable outlook; Chapiron practically revels in the ever-present dreariness. The atmosphere is defined by grotesque visuals, as the regular appearances of spit, blood and drugs turn the hopeless nature of Enola into a black hole of filth, which serves the underlying argument that the prison inadvertently trains repeat offenders.
Ultimately, “Dog Pound” treads familiar ground. An exploration of the prison’s inherent futility has a number of established precedents, from Alan Clarke’s 1979 “Scum” (which Chapiron has cited as an influence) to “A Clockwork Orange.” In contemporary terms, “Dog Pound” comes across like Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” minus the spiritual release. On IMDb, a user describes the plot of Chapiron’s movie as “Teen ‘Shawshank’ without the redemption,” which sounds about right. Chapiron stubbornly avoids an uplifting message, portraying his dangerous setting as a demonstration of virility that leads to madness.
Chaprion blames neither the inmates nor the authorities for failing to improve the process, suggesting they endure nearly identical challenges. “I am not your punishment,” an officer tells Butch, while practically begging him to rat on Banks. But the punishment exists nonetheless, stripping even the officer of his free will. The title is addressed with a half-assed elaboration late in the game as the catch-all phrase to encompass the facility’s indiscriminate approach to punishment. “You all stink the same,” an officer shouts, delivering the core thematic drive. Chaprion’s dedication to the utter brutality of the environment overrides a handful of plot holes, allowing him to set the stage for a sensational climactic revolt even though it lacks a sufficient explanation. The movie’s final shot has incredibly cinematic finality, implying that the only true escape from this dead zone is the credits.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With no stars or other immediate hooks, the movie stands a tough chance at generating huge numbers on digital platforms, although it could generate decent numbers over time if initial response is strong. In theatrical release, solid reviews may yield a decent return in its initial weekend, but long-term prospects are weak.