Mark Reviews Movies

ALPHA DOG

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Ben Foster, Shaun Hatosy, Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis

MPAA Rating:   (for pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 1/12/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

When Alpha Dog was filmed in 2004, one of its central subjects was still on the run. He ended up being one of the youngest men ever—at the age of 20—on the FBI's most wanted list. Now, three years later, the movie is released, and the man has been in custody for two years, awaiting a trial that could result in the death penalty if he is convicted. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes has already condemned him, and Alpha Dog, itself a condemnation of spoiled youth, is his public trial. The movie has been the focus of some legal maneuvering, primarily the defendant's attorney failing to pass an injunction that would delay the movie's release, as the district attorney served as a consultant on the project. The defense attorney argued that the movie would make the jury selection harder (journalists who like to throw the defendant's name around in connection with the movie are probably not helping either). This is dangerous ground for a filmmaker: Cassavetes makes no bones about the guilt of its titular alpha dog in the kidnapping/murder of a 15-year-old boy (four have already been convicted in their part in the crime). As for the movie itself, Cassavetes' script buries a lot of character and thematic ambitions in the facts of the case.

In 1999 in Los Angeles, Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a teenage drug-dealer in a rich neighborhood of San Gabriel Valley. His father Sonny (Bruce Willis) is rumored to have ties to the Mafia but is most certainly his son's marijuana supplier. Johnny owns his own house where he and his associates, including his right-hand man Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and enamored lackey Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), hang out, get high, and make a fortune. When a $7,000 pot deal goes south, Johnny is in need of money, and Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) owes him about $1,200. Jake's a meth-addict, a neo-Nazi, and regularly appears at his father (David Thornton) and stepmother's (Sharon Stone) house to bum some money. Johnny wants the whole lot, which Jake can't supply, and after a violent confrontation at Johnny's house, Jake gets revenge by breaking in, stealing a television, and leaving a disgusting present on the carpet. Johnny witnesses the whole thing, and on his way to get pay back, he spots Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). Johnny and his thugs grab the boy, and hold him a willing hostage until Jake pays back the money.

The movie shifts its tone around this point, going from a distant portrayal of gangster wannabes to an almost comic picture of a young, awkward kid fitting in with the popular kids. That generalized feeling is necessary; it instantly makes Zack an overwhelmed innocent. Innocence lost seems to be Cassavetes' point, and he drives it home early during the opening credits in a collection of home movies of children set to "Somewhere over the Rainbow."  Grown, the kids try to one-up the thug life they see in music videos (mocking the so-called gangsters featured in them) and bask in their privileged lifestyle. They go around emasculating each other, using such choice words as "homo" and "fag," and appearances matter more than anything. Take the aftermath of Jake's break-in. Johnny is at his house when Jake and his cohorts break in, but he hides. In an important moment, Johnny and Jake meet eyes as Jake is leaving—neither doing anything. Either could have done something, but both choose to ignore it. Johnny lies to his friends, saying he was out. Keeping up appearances is vital here. At their hearts, they are cowards; denying it is an act of self-preservation.

The escalation to and of the kidnapping, then, is also the result of the nature of denial in these kids, extended to terrifying extremes. While Zack is primarily complacent in his kidnapping (he earns the nickname "stolen boy" from some girls), escaping what he sees as an overburdening mother, Johnny learns the full extent of what the crime could earn him in jail time from his lawyer. Suddenly, he's questioning Frankie about a "hypothetical" situation of killing the boy to escape jail. The characters are kept at a distance, and only Frankie earns some sympathy. Justin Timberlake gives the strongest performance in the movie as a surrogate older brother to Zack; he stays in denial until the movie's admittedly powerful climax. The problem is that Cassavetes focuses too much on details. Titles tell us the place and time of events, and the movie stops to point out the over 30 witnesses to some aspect of the crime. While he might be attempting to show the disregard people have, it feels more like Cassavetes solidifying a case against the real subject. Similarly, documentary-style interviews with Johnny's father and Zack's mother come across false and only make us wonder what possibilities an actual documentary on the same case could have had.

From a legal standpoint, what Cassavetes has done is undoubtedly questionable, and if Alpha Dog were somehow able to distance itself from the case and really examine these characters and the crime, its artistic merits could have outweighed the methods. Instead, the movie, like Cassavetes' case against the real life subject, is cut-and-dry.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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