The Kid's Aren't All Right
Thursday, January 18, 2007
In August 2000, a Southern California drug dealer with the unlikely name of Jesse James Hollywood kidnapped 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz as collateral against a drug debt owed by his older brother. Hollywood’s crew kept watch over the teenager for several days, barely bothering to conceal his identity, taking him to parties where he was seen by dozens of witnesses, many of whom learned that he was a hostage. Six days after being abducted, Markowitz was bound, gagged, shot, and buried in a shallow gave. Most of Hollywood’s cohorts were arrested, tried, and convicted—the shooter is currently on death row—but Hollywood himself went on the lam, earning him a place on the FBI’s Most Wanted List at the tender age of 20.
The names in Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog have been changed, but the crime remains the same. Emile Hirsch is Johnny Truelove, leader of the pack that commits the deed in this slick drama that has its moments, but is also terribly overwrought and exploitative. Cassavetes simply tries to tell too many stories. In the film’s first few moments, Bruce Willis announces that it all comes down to parenting. Apropos, perhaps, as all the young people in Alpha Dog are a parent’s worst nightmare. Everyone parties hard, no one has any sense of responsibility, and high school girls are happy to skinny dip their way into a three-way with an underage hostage.
Cassavetes doesn’t let the parents off the hook. If anything, their behavior is worse than that of their offspring, because instead of acting like grown-ups, they’re rationalizing, controlling, pill-popping, drug-dealing chuckleheads who couldn’t tell you where their kids are.
When he focuses on the relationship between captive and captors, and the affection that develops there, he’s spot on. It makes for a terrific Stockholm Syndrome-themed party, but when he sets his lens elsewhere—even on the picture’s titular character, the entire affair loses energy and importance.
From a pop culture perspective, Alpha Dog gives the rest of us one more reason to hate Justin Timberlake. After all, this is the guy who went from boy band member to solo superstar, the guy who has had long-term trysts with Britney Spears and Cameron Diaz, who disrobed Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl, who recently put his package in a box on Saturday Night Live to national adoration, and the guy who, when finally given his first serious acting role, seriously pulls it off.
Timberlake’s Frankie Ballenbacher, Johnny’s right-hand man, may be a thuggish lout, but Timberlake makes him charming and three-dimensional, earning his acting stripes in the film’s brutal climactic scenes. He inhabits Frankie so completely that you forget that he is, in fact, Justin Timberlake.
But it’s Anton Yelchin who offers up the best performance as the sweet, doomed Zack, a nice kid who enjoys his time in captivity, desperately looking up to the young men who will eventually kill him. He has an easy, natural way about him, and his realization that things aren’t going to turn out all right is sensitive and pitiable. It’s painful to watch him walking meekly to his end, trusting his new friends the entire way.
But not all the onscreen work is as good. Both Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone chew scenery, and in Stone’s case, she delivers her dramatic monologue in a terribly unfortunate fat suit. And the big dawg himself, Johnny Truelove, is just underwritten. Emile Hirsch is a talented young actor, but the material he’s given is weak.
Alpha Dog is flawed, to be sure, but is grimly entertaining and watchable. And the filmmaker has gotten most of the details right. We know this because the prosecutor in Jesse James Hollywood’s case turned over all sorts of confidential information to the project, eventually serving as a consultant on the picture. An unusual, perhaps unethical, role for a government official to play, and one that took on new dimensions after Hollywood was arrested in Brazil in 2005, after Alpha Dog was in the can. Cassavetes altered the ending, and Alpha Dog’s theatrical release was pushed back almost a year while the drug dealer’s legal team fought it tooth and nail, asserting that its release would prejudice any jury, and attempting to have the prosecutor recused for his role in the film. This will likely be Alpha Dog’s legacy: the film of a notorious murder that was in theaters before the story’s final act played itself out.
ALPHA DOG ( * * ½ )
Directed by Nick Cassavetes. • Starring Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake and Anton Yelchin. • R, 122 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.