Film Review: Dog Pound

Overheated melodrama of inmates at a juvenile detention facility hits all the prison-movie clichés.

Formally based on Alan Clarke's 1979 British prison drama Scum—and loosely based on every prison B-movie ever made—Dog Pound showcases a promising director in Frenchman Kim Chapiron (the 2006 horror film Sheitan) and top-notch editing by Benjamin Weill, but indulges in melodramatic contrivance that undercuts plausibility and whatever empathy for the characters that we might have.

Lowering the inmate age of Scum to that of teenagers in the fictional Enola Vale Youth Correctional Center in Montana, co-writers Chapiron and Jeremie Delon introduce what's supposed to be our main trio, though their ties with other convicts seem no more or less strong: Davis (Shane Kippel), 16, busted for possession of narcotics with intent to resell; Angel (Mateo Morales), 15, assault and auto theft; and the deceptively fresh-faced Butch (Adam Butcher), 17, who's already incarcerated when we meet him and attacks and partially blinds a brutal corrections officer who, in the first strain on credulity, turns his back on the un-handcuffed, unrestrained prisoner.

Davis and Butch become targets of a bully-boy trio of trustees led by Banks (real-life ex-juvey con Taylor Poulin) who somehow seem to have the run of the prison, able to abuse and torture anyone they like. Any one of their actions might fall plausibly fall through the cracks and go undetected, but their apparent ability to do whatever they want whenever they want feels forced. Juvenile facilities work on tight schedules to keep young inmates busy and educated, as well as on the type of structure they're often lacking and which leads to their antisocial behavior in the first place. Banks and his posse mostly seem to have nowhere to go and nothing to do—with all three on apparently identical schedules—and on top of this, Banks deals drugs with impunity.

While this perfect storm of guards' and other officials’ inattention may certainly be possible, the filmmakers don't sell it by any means: Nothing reveals a facility that's disorganized, poorly run, inhumane or even uncaring—and apparently its officials still haven't figured out how to use this new thing we have now called security cameras. The unmonitored basement laundry room where anything goes appears to have been imported from Lars von Trier's The Kingdom. It's also hard to buy without some explanation why the apparent combination teacher/social worker (Lynne Adams) gets left alone in a room with a bunch of angry, horny young men without there even being a guard posted outside the door—it feels like a plot device to create a fight that doesn't even affect the plot.

We don't get a suicide, but virtually every other box on the prison-movie checklist gets filled in. Aside from the smiling-cobra Banks stealing some fresh meat's shoes, an inmate dies, another gets raped, guards don't get answers when they ask, "Who did this?" and so on. Naturally, one inmate on an outdoor work detail looks up longingly at a bird flying away. Later, we a lingering close-up on a dead cockroach. Whoa, dude, like, how symbolic. Butch is told he just has to keep clean for two more weeks and he'll be released to start a new life. Oh no. It's the cop-movie bit: "Well, boys, just two more weeks till I retire!" Yeah, what could possibly happen?

The filmmakers do keep things moving, and create an effective sense of tension and apprehension. Butcher is a young actor to keep watching, whose performance here gives Butch an active, whirring, rat-survival brain you can practically see working. Likewise impressive are veteran actor Lawrence Bayne as a troubled but dedicated corrections officer and Trent McMullen as the guards' supervisor. And the script does give us one great line when Bayne's Officer Goodyear looks at the three new inmates and sardonically paraphrases Dorothy Parker: "Well, what fresh hellions are these?"

Produced in Canada in 2009 and released in the U.K. in 2010, Dog Pound played the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, where Chapiron won the Best New Narrative Filmmaker Award.