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Humans are amazingly resilient animals. We can endure any number of extreme climates, fight back against overwhelming odds and turn veritable wastelands into virtual paradises. We can ponder questions both basic and metaphysical, learn to do just about anything we set our minds to and wrestle the world at large into submission by sheer force of our nearly boundless will. Humans can do all of this (and more) with surprisingly little: all we really need is air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and a little something to keep the elements off of our heads.

While these biological necessities go without saying, humans also need something that’s a little harder to categorize, a little more difficult to study in a lab. We also need hope. Hope that bad situations can become better, hope that we can achieve our dreams by working hard, hope that we can not only survive, on a day-to-day basis, but find some measure of personal happiness and satisfaction. Humans need hope just as much as we need sustenance and oxygen: without either one, we’re just empty husks of decaying meat, carcasses too stubborn to know that we’re already dead.

There is no hope in French writer-director Kim Chapiron’s Dog Pound (2010), although that’s not really surprising: after all, there was precious little hope in his shocking debut, Sheitan (2006), either. As a filmmaker, Chapiron possesses an almost supernatural ability to submerge his characters (and his audience) into such unrelentingly dark, tragic and terrible situations that the very concept of hope is both elusive and rather laughable. We know that Chapiron’s characters are all doomed from the very first frame: that they often don’t recognize this futility makes their inevitable struggles even more sad. These characters aren’t waving their arms for rescue: they’re thrashing around, frantically, as their increasingly tired bodies drift further and further from the shore, closer to their ultimate ends than they are to any new beginnings.

Essentially a remake of the grim and unrelenting British prison film, Scum (1979), Chapiron’s English-language debut (the film is Canadian but set in Montana) concerns the Enola Vale Youth Correctional Facility and the various individuals who are imprisoned there, as well as the ones doing the imprisoning. We’re quickly introduced to three inmates who will become our entry-way into this particular world: 16-year-old Ecstasy dealer/born victim, Davis (Shane Kippel); 15-year-old repeat offender/car-jacker Angel (Mateo Morales) and 17-year-old hot-head/nominal protagonist, Butch (Adam Butcher).

After being thrown into the facility (Butch has been transferred to Enola Vale after laying a ferocious beat-down on an abusive guard at his previous facility), the trio are quickly brought up to speed by Superintendent Sands (Trent McMullen) and the boys’ immediate authority figure, CO Goodyear (Lawrence Bayne). The rules are easy: do everything you’re told, behave yourself and walk the straight and narrow. The boys who manage to do that become “trustees” and earn more responsibilities, perks and freedom, along with signifying black shirts. The ones who don’t follow the rules get orange jump suits and a one-way ticket to “Special Unit” or, in extreme cases, solitary confinement.

As with any prison film (or actual prison, for that matter), day-to-day life in Dog Pound revolves around a strictly observed pecking order: the alpha dog gets to call the shots and dispense the punishment in whatever way he sees fit. In this particular case, the alpha dog is one seriously scary bully by the name of Banks (first-time actor/former prisoner Taylor Poulin, in a genuinely frightening performance), a character who takes an immediate dislike to both Davis and Butch, albeit for different reasons.

In Davis, Banks and his cronies, Looney (comedian Jeff McEnery) and Eckersley (Bryan Murphy, another first-time actor), see the quintessential weak link, the eternal victim that’s as vital to any bully as oxygen is to those aforementioned humans. They steal his new boots, envy his short sentence, submit him to constant abuse and, in a particularly devastating moment, subject him to a particularly violent sexual assault. Davis is the naive lamb, the chosen sacrifice for those too hard and jaded to feel anything besides hatred and the need to dominant. He’s the face of every petty drug offender tossed into the correctional system, the minnows that feed the sharks.

With Butch, the bullies see something altogether different: a genuine threat to their established social order. In order to maintain his position at the top, Banks must bend Butch to his will, show the pugilistic teen that he may have been able to take out a CO but he’ll never stand against Banks and his minions. While destroying Davis is “pure entertainment” for Banks and his crew, taking Butch down is something much more important: it’s a matter of survival, plain and simple.

As Davis, Butch and, to a much lesser extent, Angel (Morales ends up with the least screen-time, overall, leaving his character rather under-developed) try to negotiate these increasingly choppy waters, CO Goodyear tries to reach the youths through a combination of “tough love” and an unyielding need to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the most pleasant thing. He’s not a perfect man, by any stretch of the imagination: over-worked, under-paid, given to sporadic moments of anger and too thin-stretched to ever affect much change, Goodyear, at the very least, tries. That all of his goodwill becomes undone in one tragic, accidental moment is, unfortunately, to be expected: there is no hope for anyone at Enola Vale, whether they’re behind the bars or in front of them.

This, ultimately, is both the film’s source of strength and its ultimate weakness: since there is no hope for anyone, Dog Pound is an unflinching, full-throttle descent into a literal hell on earth. The camera doesn’t cut away, we get no reprieve from anything that has happened or is about to happen. Even when the characters find some tiny measures of individual happiness, such as when Davis regales the other boys with made-up stories about outrageous sexual dalliances and becomes, if only momentarily, the closest thing he’ll get to “respected,” there’s always the notion that more misery, tragedy and gloom lies just around the corner.

In one of the film’s most subtle, if icky, moments, Butch immobilizes a wandering cockroach by spitting on it until the crawling critter is stuck fast in a globular prison of phlegm and saliva. The insect twitches and moves, compulsively, doing its best to break free, to pull itself from its sticky bonds and scurry off into the safety of the nearest dark corner. By the morning, however, the cockroach is still in the exact same position, drowned in a tiny pool of Butch’s spit. Despite what it might have thought, the roach never had a chance: it was dead the minute Butch’s spit nailed it to the floor, whether it knew it or not. In Dog Pound, the differences between the youthful offenders and the dead roach are many but the similarities? Infinite.

Despite its constantly dreary subject matter, Dog Pound is beautifully made and exquisitely acted, no small feat considering the non-professional status of a good half-dozen of its cast members (many of whom, like Poulin, are actually youth offenders, themselves). Andre Chemetoff’s cinematography captures the inherent grit and claustrophobic quality of the facility perfectly, while the subtle, moody score (featuring the work of instrumental ensemble Balmorhea, among others) counters the often sudden, stunning violence to masterful effect. As with Sheitan, it’s obvious that Chapiron is a filmmaker in full command of every aspect of his craft.

For all of this, however, Dog Pound is still pretty difficult to recommend. The reason, of course, goes back to the point I’ve been hammering this whole time: there is absolutely no hope to be found here, in any way, shape or form. This isn’t to say that every – or even any – film needs to end happily: this is to say that Dog Pound makes a particular point of pounding each and every character so deep into the ground that there’s no possible outcome but the one we get. Each and every victory is false, any and all attempts at understanding or evolution are met with the harshest possible retributions. There is no need for comic relief here, no hope of any of the protagonists coming out on top of their individual struggles. If there is any kind of message to Dog Pound, it’s as basic, cynical and bleak as possible: if you end up in this situation, you are completely, totally and irreparably fucked.

As an example of “feel-bad cinema,” Dog Pound is nearly peerless: this is the kind of film destined to ruin any good mood, turn any optimist into a card-carrying misanthrope. While the world around us can be a harsh, grim place, the world inside Enola Vale is nothing but gray: a million little variations of the shade, infecting every single person that steps behind its walls.

It’s tempting to say that Dog Pound is the kind of film that could change anyone’s opinion about the correctional system (or, at the very least, the youth correctional system) but that just isn’t true: the guards don’t shoulder an inordinate amount of the blame here any more than the inmates do. This is not a tale of power-mad authority figures trying to beat their wards into submission, nor is it a story about hard-working correctional officers dealing with the soul-killing every-day business of keeping individuals locked away from society.

At its heart, Dog Pound is a story about average people making (and continuing to make) terrible decisions, the kind of decisions that can bring nothing but pain to all around them. This is a film about wasted youth, about squandered loyalty and altruistic intent blown to pieces about the terrible reality of the human condition. This is a tragedy, in every sense of the word. This is a hopeless film about hopeless people in a hopeless place, crafted by a singularly unique, uncompromising filmmaker. If you can stomach it, Dog Pound will rip your beating heart from your chest and smash it to smithereens on the floor. There is truth to be found here, some fractured beauty and hints at what could have been, under far different circumstances.

There’s a lot to find and appreciate in Kim Chapiron’s Dog Pound but hope? That, my friends, is one commodity that’s in perilously short supply.

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