“Dog Pound,” twenty nine year-old French director Kim Chapiron’s account of modern-day juvy hell, was shot in just thirty days at an actual correctional facility in Ontario. To make his emphatically grim tale even grittier, Chapiron assigned real-life juvenile criminals various roles, mixing them in with his professional cast. Surly-looking men exiting random bars were hired on the spot to play surly-looking police officers. And lead actor Adam Butcher, a more hulking, brooding version of Billie Joe Armstrong, incurred a slew of injuries—including punctured ribs—from certain fight scenes.
The in-your-face hysteria of “Dog Pound” will surely impress, repel, terrify or at least overstimulate just about every type of moviegoer. Chapiron and crew pull no punches, and they have undeniable talent at capturing the bloody, screaming rage of thuggish youths, “Lord of the Flies”-style. But to what avail? In this case, an authentic approach does not lead to any trenchant or novel message whatsoever about the material.
We’ve seen this world before, handled several different ways. “Bad Boys,” the early Sean Penn flick about juvy, shifted clumsily between macho theatrics and ho-hum moralizing. “Sleepers,” Barry Levinson’s sordid tale of viciously mistreated juvy kids and the wildly improbable “revenge” plot they concoct, wore its shlockiness on its sleeve. By contrast, “Dog Pound” is aiming to be even more serious than “Bad Boys, but by now, driving home the wan moral of “you can’t correct violence with violence” is just an exercise in futility. Pile on the excess, and it becomes even more futile.
Noone, however, could possibly convey that lesson to the overzealous Chapiron and his screenwriter Jeremie Delon. It’s not just the violence—faces split open with ping pong paddles, mugs, chair legs and other weapons, skulls gutted on rusty pipes, festering eye socket wounds—that is over the top. The sole comic relief stems from crass graffiti of nude women on prison walls, epithets scrawled on prisoner’s faces, explicit recounts of sexual episodes, and kids barely out of puberty leering after their zaftig English teacher. From the first shot, a loving close-up of a pimply adolescent’s drool as he slobbers all over his lithe girlfriend, to the final glimpse of prison guards smashing a teenage thug’s legs, face and torso with their batons, “Dog Pound” is easily one of the least poetic, least restrained exploitation films ever made.
In some circles, Chapiron and Delon will be lauded for how unwarranted the violent acts in their film are. To me, though, the arbitrariness just comes off as clumsy. The most sadistically bullied kid is Davis (Shane Kippel), which is odd because, despite his gaunt, unthreatening figure, he’s the wiseacre of the group, a foul-mouthed, cretinous, wanna-be player. The point may be that his crime of selling drugs has not rendered him as macho as most of the others. But it still never rings true that the generally well-liked clown of juvenile hall would be spit on, drugged, pummeled and raped in short order by a couple of hooligans, who somehow fail to pick on other kids practically begging for abuse—the diminutive, pubescent, near-silent car thief (Mateo Morales, aptly named Angel here) or the splashy, poetry-loving Jon Cryer type (the Canadian indie rocker Slim Twig), for instance.
Chapiron and Delon ascribe to the tired “there are no heroes” school of nihilistic filmmaking, which is, like the rest of the film, impressively violent but empty. The one officer who tries to reason with the kids (Lawrence Bayne) is revealed to be a passive-aggressive fool; his anger is kept neatly under wraps until, of course, he explodes, and suddenly the audience is forced to label him a monster. His attempts at decency, Chapiron seems to be saying, are just a front, just a masking of the same brutish violence that plagues his prisoners.
Similarly, Butch (Butcher), the officer-assaulting thug that never rats on his tormentors, that becomes a sort-of protector for more helpless boys after a few savage retaliations, is nonetheless a catalyst for several of the film’s most tragic outcomes. If he’s heroic ever, it’s by accident; he’s a good, fearless guy to have on your team, but he learns little to nothing about the repercussions of his own rage.
Chapiron and Delon, gifted visually but stunted emotionally, could use some anger management courses as well.