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Alpha Dog: Truth that Hurts

Dir: Nicholas Cassevetes

Prod: Sidney Kimmel & Paul Ralph

Screenplay: Nicholas Cassavetes

Cinematography: Robert Fraisse

Release Date: Jan 2007

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin, Justin Timberlake, Dominique Swain, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone

Even if you do not catch the film (you are a fool but up to you) you MUST check out Ben Foster showing the definition of "owning the room" at a party where he is not taken seriously. In fact, here, skip to 2:34 and see just how you make the world sit up and listen

What films can do to your emotional, or nervous state can be remarkable.  As mentioned in another review, the terrifying “Threads” had people catatonic; unable to speak for hours.

Another movie with this effect was the true-to-life Alpha Dog. Based on the kidnap of Nicholas Markowitz in California in 2000, focusing on what caused it and the disastrous fallout. 

Johnny Trulove (Hirsch) clashes with the hot-tempered Jake Mazursky (the excellent Ben Foster).  Johnny is the son of a powerful local gangster, something he cynically exploits in his favour and benefit. He is the weed connection and subsequently also the de-facto leader of his circle.  Rich WASP kids (hence the anti-Semitic undertones) that live hedonistic carefree lives free from control, largely due to the liberal bent of parents that spawned them.

Johnny is treated like a God by sycophants, particularly the obsequious Elvis (a debtor working off what he owes) but the capable and erratic Mazursky is not one of them. Thus, when Johnny tries to bully him, he is met with formidable resistance and a violent feud escalates, leading to an opportunistic kidnap of Jake’s brother, Zack. Fifteen-year-old Zack loves his brother and does not wish to cause him trouble.  He is frustrated at an overbearing mother (Sharon Stone) so he enjoys being kidnapped and the friendship he develops with Johnny’s lieutenant Frankie, played by the surprise star of the show, Justin Timberlake, (Shedding for good his ‘Mousketeer’ image).  The freedom and party-lifestyle appeal. Many of the gang are intrigued by his presence and he revels in his status as the “stolen boy". The exception is Frankie’s friend Susan (Dominique Swain) who is furious at the possibility of accessory status. On this subject, It is soon evident that the spontaneous act of grabbing the kid, regardless of how he is now a friend to the gang, renders Johnny and others directly involved liable to a hefty jail term for kidnapping.  A failed attempt to broker a piece with Jake leaves him in a tough situation.

The ensuing affray is nail-biting, drawing to a conclusion peppered with tear-jerking “if only” musings for the viewer.  We learn through superimposed text the part each person played , punishment received, where applicable, and through interspersed testimony, the effects on certain individuals’ lives

It is one of the most gruelling stories to ever make it to film.  No happy endings to be had here. The hyper-real depiction of the events make it feel as if you are there.  Certain vital scenes are done so unglamorously that the realism is palpable and indescribable. A total sensory thunderbolt.

Timberlake owns the role

Drama often achieves heightened apprehension at pivotal moments using music and slow-motion.  Not here.  To his eternal credit, director Cassavetes uses the understated to great effect.  A scene in the desert ends with such horror, rendered even more terrifying by the underdressed depiction.

Bruce Willis plays Johnny’s gangster father, Sonny. One of the weaker parts, his seemingly endless arrogance in accepting roles he considers beneath him and putting bugger-all effort into them, as shown in scenery-chewing overacting he does here.  After Kevin Smith’s experiences with the prima-donna actor, one finds it difficult to find any admiration for him, particularly after phoned in performances like this.

Speaking of added weight.  The underrated Sharon Stone pleases as the mother of the kidnap victim.  Played in two parts, one during the dramatization waiting for her son to return, and later as a manically depressed interviewee who has more than doubled in weight.

There is an enduring gaggle of youthful talent. Hirsch is excellently unlikeable as the arrogant Johnny.  Going from small-time nepotistic drug-dealer to international fugitive on the FBI ten most wanted list alongside Usama bin Laden. Cassavetes all the while ensuring it fits with the story. Ben Foster plays Jake Mazursky as the hedonist speed-freak trying to fix his life but always screwing up.  Even after all, he manages to play sympathetic (the flexing of his martial arts skills to unhelpful partygoers is a highlight).  Then Justin Timberlake.  A young pop-icon who has proven wrong the many who wrote him off as a screen lightweight. He is now one of Hollywood’s leading young men.  Finally, a note to the tragic late actor, Anton Yelchin.  The massive talent from this as a precociously intelligent 15-year-old, who was in real life much the same.  He went on to wow in the unfairly panned Odd Thomas and the last outing for him in Star Trek.  A bright young light taken from us way too early in tragic circumstances.

The real Nicholas Markowitz (left) and Anton Yelchin as his basis, Zach . Picture courtesy of historyvsholywood.comMazursky

This is a sadly allegorical epitaph to a promising actor. That said, it is entirely fitting and earned, and in no way by merit of his mortality.  He shows that even at such a young age he commanded the screen and it is sad that so few casual cinemagoers know who he was.  It would be a commanding act of integrity to see a major network (Sky, Disney, Netflix, or Amazon) do a season of Yelchin’s work. The industry owes it to him.

Some reviews criticise the flashy hedonism and beautiful cast as shallow and absurd. All that could be said is that they know the audience, who will watch it and what pleases them.  Okay, the lifestyles led by the main players was probably not as extravagant and carefree as is displayed, but you are in a movie “theatre”. The extremities totally work as far as I can see.

The editing and filters truly put it to the front. Framing and lighting the half-steampunk/half post-grunge angry skate-culture with a blistering score and soundtrack.  Sadly, one of the unavoidable trappings of a contemporary-culture heavy picture is that it will date.  This is in no way a reason to not see it.  It is a piece of history and a lesson that shows the difference between posture and practice. It would be impossible to ever regret seeing this.



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