Visceral, vicious and more than a bit vacant, “Dog Pound” is a younger, more adrenal version of classic prison drama that lacks the one key element — injustice — necessary to draw the viewer into its righteously indignant point of view. Vietnam-born Francophone filmmaker Kim Chapiron, making his first English-language movie, knows how to push buttons and is fluent with brutal action. The question is whether specialty auds will respond to a film that doesn’t tell them clearly enough who to root for, or why.
Chapiron (“Sheitan”) won the new narrative filmmaker award at the Tribeca fest, and he knows how to move the camera and sell the story, demonstrating the subtle psychological sleight-of-hand of the most artful propagandist. And he creates such captivating brutality that viewers might not even notice they’re being conned (no pun intended). None of Chapiron’s three key protagonists, after all, has been arrested by mistake.
In fact, we see their crimes being committed: Alex (Mateo Morales) steals cars; David (Shane Kippel) sells drugs; Butch (Adam Butcher) assaults a corrections officer. And when they arrive at the Enola Vale Correctional Facility in Montana, the place seems tough but fair: Don’t screw up and you’ll do just fine. And they will, provided they can survive their fellow inmates.
Inspired by Alan Clarke’s infamous BBC telefilm “Scum” (1979), “Dog Pound” is less about an oppressive institution than the lowlife predators it breeds. The alpha dog in the pound, Banks (real-life offender Taylor Poulin) is a nasty bit of goods who terrorizes the weaker and smaller — and, when the prey is bigger, enlists help. The indoctrination for new inmates involves beatings in their sleep, and Butch is thumped in his bunk by Banks and his cronies. But he’s not going to take it, and when the time comes for payback, Banks’ repugnance and Butch’s quiet determination ensure that few viewers won’t be rooting for Butch to deliver.
But Butch is a terrorist too, and if “Dog Pound” has a point, it’s that all the animals are equally vile. Amid all the B-movie tropes Chapiron employs, which he uses to mine his material for all the melodrama it’s worth, there doesn’t seem much purpose: The characters seem to possess little potential for compassion, empathy or insight that the film could be a PSA promoting life without parole for juvenile offenders.
For all the hubbub about pic’s use of unknowns and nonactors, the performances are actually fairly mediocre, with Taylor the most convincingly loathsome. Tech credits are adequate.