Alpha Dog (8/10)
by Tony Medley
This is not just a roman à
clef, it’s as close to being the true story of Jesse James Hollywood
and his gang of miscreants as you will find on film. In the late ‘90s,
Hollywood, a young, teenaged, San Fernando Valley middle-class punk was
making lots of money dealing drugs. One of his customers was delinquent,
so Hollywood allegedly kidnapped his brother, held him as hostage, and
then had him murdered and fled. Hollywood was recently found living in
seclusion in South America, extradited, and is scheduled to stand trial.
His accomplices are apparently in jail serving various terms.
In “Alpha Dogs,” Johnny
Truelove (Emile Hirsch, who gave such a riveting performance in “Lords
of Dogtown”) is the Hollywood character, a charismatic leader to whom
his buddies toady. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) is a drug-addled customer
who owes Truelove money ($1,200) and goes out of his way to tick
Truelove off. While driving around, Johnny and his buddy, Frankie
Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), serendipitously come across Zack
Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), Jake’s 15-year-old brother, who has run away
from his parents, strong mother Olivia (Sharon Stone) and weak father
Butch (David Thornton).
They grab him and from that
point, the Hollywood story unfolds with a fatalistic certainty.
This is written and directed
by Nick Cassavetes, who will remain in my pantheon of director-heroes if
he never does anything other than “The Notebook.” Here, in an entirely
different genre, he has equaled what he did there. This is a tense,
realistic depiction of a frightening segment of society that does exist
today. It’s not just an indictment of today’s youth, it shines a bright
light on the terrible parenting that results in the profane, indolent
upper-middle class teenagers that parade before us in the telling of the
story. There isn’t an admirable character in the film. Even Zack, the
victim, is so naïve and obtuse, so inconsiderate of his caring mother,
that he’s not anyone who for whom we can feel terribly sorry, despite
his inevitable fate. Cassavetes took pains with accuracy and feels that
95% of what he put on the screen is factual, even though the “names have
been changed to protect the innocent,” as "Dragnet's" Jack Webb might have said.
Sharon Stone starts out the
movie giving an absorbing performance as Zack’s mother and Jake’s
stepmother. But there is a scene at the end of the movie in which she is
made to look grotesque, like a fat, unattractive mother still grieving her son that
goes on and on and on. It robs the movie of its pace and is the only
part of the film that drove me to look at my watch, yearning for the
scene to end.
Cassavetes makes the film in
such a way that the inevitability of Zack’s outcome causes the film to
be even more suspenseful, hard as that may be to believe. This guy is
brimming with talent.
Hirsch and Foster give
exceptional performances, but they are bolstered by good performances by
the rest of the cast, including Stone, Yelchin, Timberlake, and
Thornton. I just wish they had cut Stone’s appearance at the end, which
is almost macabre.
This is a psychologically
violent film. If you can stand its constantly profane (but undoubtedly
realistic) language, it’s informative and entertaining, well-written
with good acting.
January 11, 2007