As you have probably guessed, the Dog Pound does not actually refer to a place where canines are kept when they don’t have a proper home. It is, in fact, an allegorical reference to a juvenile detention centre in the US.
Now you might think that such an obvious metaphor would make for a standard drama about how difficult life is for young offenders, and how they are hardened into another world when they are locked up in the inhumane conditions of their prison. And if you did think that, you’d be partially right.
The film opens with three young offenders, Butch, Davis, and Angel, all committing the crimes that would see them locked up. Once inside, the group are subjected to systematic bullying from the top predators inside: a gang of bad-asses who nobody wants to mess with. The guards are little better; although they talk the ‘rehabilitation’ talk they are ground into a routine of dealing with violence through cold, rigid rules and routine that have no real way of dealing with the problems the young inmates face.
But aside from this basic setup, the plot has only basic resemblances to other prison dramas as it splinters off into several stories that work together to create a visceral impression of what life in a juvenile detention centre can be like.
The first main story involves Butch, who is inside for a violent crime (yes you get to see it, and yes it’s nasty). All he wants to do when he gets inside is serve his time and get out again, but in the face of the brutal bullying of himself and the two newbies he’s thrown together with he finds that he is being made into the unwitting battler of the oppressors. The trouble is that he can’t keep up the fight forever, not because he might get outmuscled or caught out, but for far more surprising reasons.
The subplots surrounding the bonding of the inmates, and their coming to terms with their situation show great intelligence. There are few corny scenes in which they have a cheesy ‘let’s be friends’ moments, and the constant tussling for supremacy that happens between friends (especially in such tense surroundings) is neither omitted nor built up into a predictable plot about the pressures of friendship in prison.
The best element of the plot, however, is the prison and its guards. Although their systematic approach to their jobs is sometimes cold, and often ends in disastrous consequences (several tragedies will leave you shell-shocked, I guarantee it) they are always presented as real people who genuinely only want to do what is right. One guard tries to get holiday, and when his efforts are frustrated he makes mistakes, and on several occasions bumbling, if well-meaning, attempts to resolve conflicts with peaceful solutions fail miserably and result in the ubiquitous ‘cycle of violence’ that occurs in such institutions.
Building an image of this painful cycle is no easy thing, and many great writers and directors have failed, but somehow Kim Chapiron manages to make the point in a subtle, nuanced and intelligent way that never shies away from the truth but never comes across as preachy or aggressive in delivering a ‘message’.
On top of all this, there are some of the most intense scenes of violence you’ll witness in this kind of drama: all of which build to a conclusion that left me sat in the theatre, shaken by the sheer chaotic melee that just unfolded, and awestruck at how events can snowball with such huge consequences.
This is a fantastic film that should not be allowed to sink below the radar. Watch it if you can.
Dog Pound is in U.K. Cinema’s from Friday.
This article was first posted on August 26, 2010