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Alpha Dog
by Chris Knipp

Nick Cassavetes has assembled quite an aggregate of budding star power for this true crime film -- forgive me if I don't get all their names -- which is surprisingly interesting for something "dumped" onto US screens in early January. Unfortunately Justin Timberlake is getting more press than the established young actor Emile Hersh, whose character is the more central figure of this breathless tale of dissolute, hedonistic middle class youths in the San Fernando Valley too dumb to know kidnapping is a capital offense and murder is worse. We also get an older generation, of parents helpless or immoral, "second and third generation sleazeballs" who attempt saves and damage control in vain. These include not only Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone but ageless cult favorite Harry Dean Stanton. Surprisingly it's said Cassavetes had access to court records, even though Hersh's character has not gone to trial (this was what caused delays and explains the odd release time).

There are different ways of looking at Alpha Dog: mindless thrills, tsk-tsk material, another to dump on the youth flick trash heap; or you can see it as Nick Cassavetes finding his way out from under the shadow of his father. Earlier efforts were lackluster: 1996's Unhook the Stars with parental muse Gina Rowlands; 1997's She's So Lovely, rehashing a script by his father. A detour into slick schlock was 2002's Denzel Washington vehicle John Q. Then he did the weepy 2004 The Notebook, not exactly a challenging role for Half Nelson's supposedly "edgy" but in fact quite uneven Ryan Gosling. Alpha Dog is something different, a pseudo-vérité crime tale that requires little mood-setting or background. The actors provide that, along with lots of vile colloquial-inflected action. In a time when the word "ensemble" is being thrown around loosely, this really has it with its breathless gangsta-rap-video fueled partying, manic family fights, and drugged-out violence, all involving family and competing buddies, "dawgs," druggily seeking Alpha-hood, rather than real hoods or Mafiosi.

Hersh is Johnny Truelove, based on FBI most-wanted criminal Jesse James Hollywood, who was supplied with marijuana to sell by his father Sonny (Willis). Timberlake is his best pal, Frankie. Another pal, maybe more their "bitch" in the youths' charming lingo, is Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy). The wild card is Jake Mazursky (an over-the-top Ben Foster), a violent speed punk from a respectable Jewish family (Stone is the mom, David Thornton the ineffectual dad) with a sweet kewpie-doll younger brother named Zach (Anton Yelchin) who's dying to turn bad and escape his boring, cloying home. In part this is one of those short-happy-life tales where a 15-year-old boy gets all the drugs and girls he wants, gets laid for the first time, then meets a tragic end. This isn't the first story where a kid enjoys getting kidnapped and is blinded by drugs and the glamour and excitement of lawlessness from seeing he's in mortal danger. Be prepared for underdressed girls, testosterone overload, and a vile excess of F-words and intoxicants.

The movie really is good at conveying its jerky electric group dynamic. The ending is terrifying and deeply sad. You go away with a sense of out-of-control action that seems utterly appropriate to the narrative. Where Larry Clark does this sort of thing better is in his focusing more exclusively on the…. Kids. Clark did his own chronicle of a true crime in the absorbing and dispiriting 2001 Bully. The motives and the arc differ, but the stupidity level is very much the same. Since the essence of both chronicles is lack of parental control, Alpha Dog's jarring vérité interviews with parents seem irrelevant and, okay, Cassavetes has an elaborate cast of real parallel witnesses to introduce, but we don't need constant titles naming and numbering them. Such devices only interrupt our perception of the lethal dynamic, but it's Cassavetes' intention that parents should have a voice, so however unnecessarily they get that in order to alternately pretend ignorance or say how devastated they are.

There is something charismatic about Timberlake; or is it simply his supermarket-checkout-mag fame subconsciously pushing our buttons? He supplies mostly just a smile and a lot of bare-chested tattoos and, truth to tell, Hersh doesn't get much to do in his lunkhead role. You might almost expect him to say "Duh." Foster is intense with meth-head hysteria that he researched carefully, but his character is still overdrawn. Yelchin has the innocence and cheekbones to be a tragic victim and bubblegum idol who's catnip to the girl groupies. But singling out leads is misleading because there are several dozen characters here and the movie's accomplishment is that they all come alive pretty well. What happens is that Johnnie is angry because Jake owes him $1200. He and his buds run across younger brother Zach, they grab him as "hostage" to press Jake to pay; the rest follows.

This seems to rate higher with critics than Clark's Bully did, but newspaper reviewers are reluctant to praise anything so "irresponsible" and yet "watchable": they might look duped. Timberlake does an okay job; he's relaxed and natural onscreen. Surely Nick Cassavetes deserves some of the credit for that, and for the naturalistic improvised feel the interactions have. This is his best film to date, and the one most worthy of a younger version of his father. While we're trashing Alpha Dog, we might remember what a lot of young actors male and female get a chance to do convincing and promising work in it; and while we're regretting its "lack of narrative structure" (a criticism leveled at Bully as well) we might consider the real-life lack of a plan whenever dumb improvisatory criminals go to work: this is a tragi-comedy of errors of warped Shakespearean dimensions. It's not clear what's "irresponsible" about a movie that ends by reporting, as Bully also did, that the perpetrators all got caught (but Johnnie Truelove only after five years of successful flight) and punished (the latter, as mentioned, still awaiting trial for the 2000 crime).

©2007 Chris Knipp

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