Perhaps the best way to wrap one’s mind around the weirdness of Pound is to accept that the counterculture era of the late ’60s and early ’70s was a time of experimentation fueled by sociopolitical dissatisfaction. Seen in that light, the wild central notion of Pound makes a twisted kind of sense—by employing an ethnically diverse group of human actors to portray dogs who occupy a large cage while awaiting adoption or euthanasia, writer-director Robert Downey Sr. makes an oblique statement about the way society discards unwanted citizens. All these characters want is the right to run free—and, of course, to get laid, since Downey devotes a fair amount of screen time to canine carnality. Based on Downey’s 1961 play The Comeuppance, this picture is far too avant-garde and vulgar to “work” in any conventional sense. It’s a hip statement for hip audiences. Considered on its own bizarre and satirical terms, however, the movie has gravitas, integrity, and purpose.
After a dog is abandoned outside a New York City animal shelter, the matron on duty transports the animal to a large holding pen filled with other canines. Then, with a brisk cut, Downey replaces the dogs with human actors, many of whom have obvious visual signifiers relating to the dogs they represent. Boxer (Stan Gottleib) wears a pugilist’s robe and trunks. Greyound (Antonio Fargas) wears a track suit, since he’s a racing animal. The sole feline in the bunch, Siamese Cat (Ching Yeh), is depicted as an Asian man with a long beard. And so on. Once he establishes the contrivance of humans-as-animals, Downey begins a sort of existential melodrama, with the animals lamenting their certain doom while rhapsodizing about the lives they enjoyed before imprisonment. In a sequence that sympathetic viewers undoubtedly find poignant, a Puppy (played by the director’s five-year-old son, future movie star Robert Downey Jr., in his screen debut) arrives at the pound and is adopted almost immediately because of his cuteness.
The interplay among the dogs touches on themes pertaining to hippie culture, race relations, and other progressive concerns. There’s also an element of bedroom farce, related to the unlikely presence in the pound of a penguin. (Don’t ask.) Downey hits certain satirical targets more squarely than others, and his penchant for profanity-strewn dialogue gives the film an unhelpful quality of puerility. (The abundance of sex talk, as well as discreetly filmed sex acts, earned the picture an X rating.) Every so often, Downey’s insouciance gains focus, as in musical montages set to fierce rock tunes featuring with-it lyrics (e.g., “So I went for a bummer in the pound/on the baddest shit I ever found”).
Yet the whole enterprise is acted and filmed with great precision, so Pound never spirals into random weirdness; quite to the contrary, the film is a textbook example of deliberate weirdness. It is also, allegedly, a comedy, though the combination of grim subject matter and strange presentation will render the experience of Pound quite humorless for some viewers, this one included. A challenge for those who can’t groove with the central joke and presumably a wicked delight for those who can, Pound is arguably Downey’s most audacious movie, though he gained wider attention for the racially themed Putney Swope (1969) and the religiously themed Greaser’s Palace (1972).