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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