Title: Alpha Dog
Play time: 2h 2min
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Screenwriters: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin
All Credit Where it’s Due – Alpha Dog
Parts of Alpha Dog haunt me. This came as a bit of a surprise, since the movie is sloppy and not very good, but certain aspects have stubbornly stuck: what it gets right, it gets right, and all credit where it’s due. More so than I expected from the heretofore straightforward hand of writer-director Nick Cassavetes, this purports to be a head-on collision between two stories — a shattered-innocence tragedy and a true-crime cautionary tale — and how interesting it would have been had the two actually collided, each acting as a thematic foil for the other. Instead, the first resolves with brutal, heartbreaking finality, while the second limps pathetically toward the end credits, dragging out the suffering of everyone involved.
Half the film — the half that works — plays out like a depraved, cynical version of Almost Famous. Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin) is an ordinary fifteen year-old, exasperated with his parents in ordinary ways, and predictably jealous of his utterly insane neo-Nazi drug dealer big brother Jake (Ben Foster) — “I’d trade you,” he says, after sneaking out of his comfortable middle-class home to visit the grimy, creepy pad Jake shares with his stoned-out-of-her-mind girlfriend. He soon gets his wish when he’s kidnapped for ransom by Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), whom Jake owes some relatively insignificant amount of money, and his clueless gang of suburban thugs.
It’s an impulsive, thoughtless act, and Truelove and his cronies don’t know what to do with their new charge: one moment they stuff him in the closet and duct tape his mouth, and the next, he and Truelove’s de facto second-in-command Frankie (Justin Timberlake) are playing X-Box. Zack is unfazed — on one level, he’s enjoying the adventure (in what must ultimately be Alpha Dog‘s saddest moment, he asserts that he sees it as “just another story to tell [his] grandkids”), and on another, touchingly, he cooperates for the sake of his brother. His captors take to him, and he greets everything — including a rousing naked game of Marco Polo with two pretty girls in Frankie’s dad’s pool — with enraptured, wide-eyed wonder.
Splendid Cast Performance by Yelchin in Alpha Dog
Anton Yelchin virtually runs away with the film. Cassavetes throws Zack into an exaggerated, flamboyant universe — his brother Jake is a complete Looney Toon; he’s taken hostage by a bunch of wannabe Tony Montanas — and Yelchin is remarkable in the way he grounds Alpha Dog in reality. Certain scenes stand entirely alone: watch Zack’s encounter with his parents on the stairs, the subtlety of their interaction, his fully believable and familiar frustration. There’s nothing else like it in the movie. Late in the film, Yelchin is given a hugely difficult scene where Zack’s fantasy abruptly becomes a nightmare, and he nails it, converting Zack’s ordinariness from something faintly amusing to something powerful and terrifying (in fairness, I should mention that Justin Timberlake is very impressive in this scene as well).
This also works because of the extent to which Zack is the story’s moral compass. For as long as he likes and trusts his new friends, the kidnapping really does seem like fun and games, and the tone of the film shifts along with his perceptions. From this perspective, his relationship with Frankie, while touching in its way, is the ultimate betrayal, and his desperate appeals to his “friend” in the scene I mentioned earlier are one part of Alpha Dog I can’t seem to get out of my mind.
The other half of the film, as you may have guessed, focuses on the misadventures of the kidnappers, and here Cassavetes runs into some problems. To his great credit, his screenplay takes some real stabs at complexity: though seeming every bit the amateur gangstas, Johnny Truelove and Co. openly mock a gangsta rap music video; despite the casual misogyny constantly bandied about, Truelove himself is portrayed early on, and somewhat bizarrely, as a staunch monogamist. Then there’s the issue of the parents, who are either corrupt, debauched or clueless; Cassavetes seems to blame them for allowing this to happen, and that seems about right.
In the end, though, it’s not quite convincing. Earlier I described Ben Foster’s character as a “Looney Tune,” and this was less a flippant metaphor than a surprisingly accurate descriptor; I laughed despite myself. The Truelove character is simply vile — a coward and a liar — but he’s not allowed to function as a villain, and Emile Hirsch doesn’t have much to work with. The film resists the inevitable conclusion that these guys are just losers, insisting on a view of their activities that’s much more exotic than they merit, and at a certain point threatening to seem silly.
Cross Story Telling Doesn’t Prove to be Attractive
The latter may be due to the fact that Cassavetes fancies Alpha Dog some sort of a true crime saga, and it is here that he nearly rubs out everything he accomplishes. He bookends the story with newsmagazine-style interviews with two of the parents, played by Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone, and inserts frequent subtitles either giving the time of day or identifying witnesses to the Truelove gang’s misdeeds. This needlessly aggrandizes the characters, as I mentioned, but it also introduces elements that distract and detract from the story — the ending, in particular, goes off the rails, first with an absurdly protracted scene involving Sharon Stone in a fat suit, then with a superfluous denoument showing the irrelevant fates of all the characters (I defy you not to chuckle when the walls literally close in on Truelove).
Telling both of these stories in a way that worked would have made this a great film; telling just the first could have made it a very good one. As it stands, Alpha Dog betrays itself, following a genuinely upsetting climax with nearly twenty minutes of boredom. Parts of it will haunt me, but too much is not worth remembering.