REVIEW: Alpha Dog [2007]

“No more music videos, that’s what I think”

Alpha Dog is based on the real life incident perpetrated by Jesse James Hollywood, (surprisingly his actual given name), and his band of 20-something friends getting over their heads when their drug business hits a snag. Hollywood had a debt owed by another young adult and when a riff begins between them, he took the debtor’s brother hostage until the money was paid in full. Hollywood stands trial right now for the planning the murder of Nick Markowitz, a kid who was caught in the middle of a tragedy ripe for a filmed tribute. Alpha Dog isn’t as much a tribute as it is a cautionary tale of how these are kids playing dress-up. They see gangsta culture and feel they can buy that lifestyle with their endless supply of money; they have no clue about the consequences of their actions, and no real remorse for the results. When this film is on, it is really on. Some scenes are so real and true to the culture and the mixed emotions going through the heads of kids that know nothing but being led in one direction by someone they think is their friend. Unfortunately, when the film is off, it is distracting and kills off the resonance left by the scenes that were on the money.

Nick Cassavetes, (yes the guy who adapted and directed The Notebook), comes in with a film that shows how much work went into it. You can tell that he really researched the case and tried to keep every detail intact. His use of captions for day, location, and time lend to the documentary-like construction, and the numbering of witnesses shows how many opportunities were there to stop the event from escalating. Just seeing all these people watching what was going on and doing nothing about it really hits home that we live in a world where one feels the need to just mind their own business, washing themselves clean of anything that might happen as a result. Adults see the abduction, but do nothing so as to not risk harm to themselves, and kids just find the circumstances a joke that will go away in the end and should be enjoyed while it lasts. It really is a tragic story and Cassavetes does a good job in getting that point across. However, I had seen an interview with him that spoke of how the film was completed when Hollywood was finally captured in South America. That incident made him go back to the film, recut it, and add footage to portray it. These additions are what ruin the film from being great. The final twenty minutes or so show fake interview footage and clips of those involved being captured. Every minute of it is unnecessary and instead of putting closure to the film, just totally destroys the climax that occurred right before. The movie ends up being disjointed and rough, as though it needed to be put together quickly and never allowed to be honed to perfection. It is a shame too, as the climatic scene is emotionally draining and hard to watch. The actors are phenomenal and rather than leave those images burned to your mind, it is all washed clean by stilted footage without any utility to the story that was being told. A movie should be all encompassing viscerally and emotionally and not made into an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” at the end.

To elaborate a bit on the acting, this cast is stacked to the brim with quality people. Emile Hirsch is great, Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone do their job nicely, and it’s good to see Shawn Hatosy with a significant role, (he’s really good in Outside Providence), and Harry Dean Stanton back in front of the camera. The real standouts, though, are Anton Yelchin, Ben Foster, and Justin Timberlake. Yelchin plays the role of the stolen boy to perfection, full of innocence and a joy in being treated as one of the guys and hanging out with beautiful girls. Foster is just amazing as the junkie brother who’s loose canon mentality spins the whole ordeal out of control to the point where Johnny Truelove, (Hirsch’s Jesse James Hollywood character), can’t decide what to do because he knows he’ll have to watch his back whether the hostage lives or dies. The crazy coked out tweaking lends realism to the performance, as well as a comic undertone. Sure he may play it a bit over the top, but it is effective nonetheless. Finally, not to sound like every other review of the film, it must be said that Timberlake steals the show. The range he shows is exceptional for someone unaccustomed to acting on a normal basis. He is natural throughout and you can’t help but feel helpless while watching him, Yelchin, and Chris Marquette in the pivotal scene towards the end.

Now while I attribute most of the misfires here to the director, I must give him credit for its successes. The story arc is well laid out and especially effective in displaying some very humorous moments and comic setups for the first half of the film. By giving the audience a joyful entry into the darkness forthcoming, Cassavetes helps us sink into the proceedings and get caught up in the chaos. I also really like what he did with the opening credit sequence by having all his stars bring in old home movies. These aren’t just made-up clips of random children, but the innocence of all our characters before society has corrupted them. I picked out Yelchin, Foster, and Hatosy at first viewing, and I’m sure would see that the rest were there as well. Alpha Dog is definitely worth a look, but unfortunately not the masterpiece it seems it could have been.

Alpha Dog 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

PS. What were Alan Thicke and Janet Jones-Gretzky doing in this film for the three seconds each of screentime?

photography:
[1] Emile Hirsch star as Johnny Truelove and Justin Timberlake star as Frankie in Alpha Dog – 2007
[2] Amber Heard as Alma and Anton Yelchin star as Zack Mazursky in Universal Pictures’ Alpha Dog – 2007

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