Dog Pound fittingly begins with dramatizations of its three key characters’ imprisonable offences, then ends on the easy, if universal, symbolism of an open door being slammed shut by a riot policeman. The space between shows whatever individualism the film’s teen criminals had when they entered Enola Vale (the facility in which the action takes place), violently crimped into generic suffering by the one-size-fits-all “solution” of juvenile correction. This institutional process, through which unique human figures are shaved down into whatever shape the penal system requires that they conform to, is further mirrored by the film’s bold shifts in narrative focus; the story becomes less concerned with unique motivations as it clinks forward, and eventually smoothes its myriad of frustrated voices into one mournful monotone.
But while it’s commendable that an “issue film” of this nature is daring enough to de-humanize in order to make a point, the conceit makes attempted verisimilitude indistinguishable from script clumsiness. The plot willfully denies our satisfaction, often at the risk of compromising its own structural integrity: Rivalries between inmates flare up and die down desultorily, while most of the movie’s carefully cultivated backstories turn out to have negligible significance. (One loose cannon of a prisoner has been sent to Enola Vale after assaulting a sinister guard, but aside from a Le Trou-esque moment wherein a warden cites this event while bargaining with him for information, the history proves irrelevant.) And quite frequently, instances of ostensible character development reveal how little writer-director Kim Chapiron has to say about his subject; when a guard uses unprovoked brutality to vent his frustration toward not being able to take a day off for his daughter’s birthday, one can practically hear the film muttering bromides about how no good can come of institutions like the fictional Enola Vale.
Still, though the film’s social commentary remains pitifully shallow, Chapiron and cinematographer Andre Chemetoff flesh out the surface of their diegetic universe with such enthusiasm that its lack of depth begins to feel like a conscious stylistic decision; the conceptual primitivism at the film’s core liberates the camera. Using jerky handheld shots for meditative moments and graceful Steadicam hovers for some of the story’s most violent flourishes (one of which references the fluidly photographed retaliation by plate-crusher in Brute Force), the movie’s visual manner remains likeably unpredictable throughout. Even more remarkably, this ever-mutable mise-en-scène is less an extension of character affect than it is a suggestion of the tonal contradictions through which the prison torments its captives.
Aside from one uncharacteristically warm flashback sequence depicting an inmate’s seduction by his girlfriend’s mother, Chapiron avoids succumbing to the mix of arrogance and insecurity with which the prisoners view themselves, favoring instead an ambiguous, discomforting coldness. The frame practically becomes another part of Enola Vale’s punitive machinery; it drowns Enola Vale’s prisoners and guards alike in the nauseous pastel colors of the institution’s walls and uniforms, while smugly recognizing the comparative beauty of blood-drenched faces after a fist fight. No one escapes the petty, repulsive gaze that Chapiron cultivates—a formal absolutism that maligns the humiliating mechanisms at work within such facilities more cogently than any of Dog Pound’s flimsily humanistic plot turns.