Alpha Dog (2006): Cassavetes Controversial Film

Unlike his father, the late and great John Cassavetes, who was an auteur in every sense of the term, Nick Cassavetes is still searching for his voice, hopping from genre to genre, and style to style. His latest, the youth mock-docudrama “Alpha Dog,” which served as closing night of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival while it was still a New Line production, is finally get theatrical release this month as a Universal picture.

Inspired by actual events that have been in the news for years and even involved a legal suit, the tense and intense “Alpha Dog” follows three fateful days in the lives of a group of Southern teens, who literally and figuratively reached dead-end. For those unfamiliar with the real case, it concerns Jesse James Hollywood, a longtime fugitive who got into a pointless kidnapping and was arrested years after the summer 2000 abduction and murder of teenager Nicholas Markowitz; his buddies were also caught and convicted.

Thematically, this gangbang of a picture belongs to the genre of suburb films about youth alienation and anomie, like Larry Clark’s “Bully” or Penelope Spheeris’ early 1980s “Suburbia,” and even Joel Schumacher’s “Lost Boys.” And like Cassavetes’ previous melodrama, “John Q,” which dealt with a poor working class father (Denzel Washington) who acts out of desperation to save his ill son, “Alpha Dog” is a semi-successful attempt at socially relevant drama, torn from the newspapers.

Hovering between sociology (story comes straight form headline news) and cinema verite, and between a serious social-problem feature and a sleazy exploitation flick, the film never finds its dramatic center, though it’s not boring to watch due to the injection of energy and style into the proceedings. I will not depict “Alpha Dog” as shallow, but it’s certainly not illuminating of the film’s many, significant issues. The movie is also marred by structural problems. The climax arrives too late, after which you feel as if the director rushes toward some neat but unsatisfying resolutions that negate the tone of the better parts of the movie.

Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a cocky, headstrong teen, is a mid-level drug dealer in a comfortable sector of the sprawling, privileged neighborhoods in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley. The existence of Johnny and his crew, landlocked in their suburban locale with too much time to spare, is a combo of partying and looking for constant thrills. Based on immoral and amoral decision, it’s a lifestyle that often leads to disastrous consequences.

The clique’s model of good life derives from pop culture, and more rap music and video games than movies. They spend their conscious hours copying the thug life they idolize. Johnny has a wad of cash, beautiful girls, a thriving business, and enough weed to keep his friends stoned. Life for Johnny and his friends seems–but only seems–to come with no consequences. Anything can happen, and sure enough, over the course of three days, something does happen.

When raging hothead Jake (Ben Foster) fails to pay the deal money of $1,000 he owes Johnny, the situation escalates into a battle for domination, culminating with Johnny and his gang impulsively kidnapping Jake’s younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin).

En route to Palm Springs, the group decides to keep the kid as a marker and slowly begins including him in their schedule, alternating between parties and slack time. With no parents in sight, they grow used to having Zack around. Under the temporary care of Johnny’s charismatic friend Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Zack enjoys an illicit summer fantasy of drinking and new experiences such as losing his virginity.

Out in the desert, this wild bunch soon begins to lose sight that Zack is a hostage, a “stolen boy,” who can’t just be simply returned. Hours turn into days, and solutions to the Zack problem begin to dwindle. Bad decisions are simply followed by worse ones.

Johnny’s father (Bruce Willis) attempts to track down his son and convince him to return the hostage. With police called in by the boy’s distraught mother (Sharon Stone in a ferocious turn), the situation grows more complex, and Johnny finds himself out of his league with no ideas how to fix it. For Johnny, the line between playing a thug and becoming one soon blurs, resulting in bad consequences for all involved.

The initial inspiration for Cassavetes’ overbaked saga came from witnessing the high school experience of his daughter Gina. He pondered what would happen if a bunch of hoodlum kids took a prank way too far, and made a series of decisions and missteps that would put them in a situation from which they could not be extricated.

As a cautionary morality tale, about lack of parental guidance (or interference), “Alpha Dog” is overly familiar. Cassavetes seems alarmed by the world, both complex and complicated, in which youths live today, with parents holding demanding jobs and caught up in their own mundane lives.

It’s indicative of the helmer’s lack of assured touch that the lingo also changes, from an effort at authenticity, trying to capture the specific ways that his alpha-teens speak, using offensive language as an assault strategy, to a more familiar jargon of youth flicks. Also movieish is the subplot of whether or not to notify the police, a thematic thread that has prevailed in American youth pictures since 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” with Jimmy Dean.

Reportedly, there were some witnesses who saw the real-life Markowitz just hours before he was murdered, but the way it’s presented in the movie doesn’t ring true. There are other liberties with the facts, some justified dramatically while others are not.

Stylistically, too, in the name of accuracy, Cassavetes goes for a brisk tempo to capture the rough edges of his young protags. But there are devices, such as the split screen, that seem superfluous and a show-off, calling too much attention to themselves. That said, in several sequences, Robert Fraisse’s widescreen cinematography is truly striking, enhancing the unanticipated fear factor.

The acting is almost uniformly good, the exceptions being Bruce Willis as Sonny Truelove, Johnny’s enigmatic father, a businessman operating on the outskirts of the law, and Foster as the hotheaded Jake. As Sonny’s wife Olivia, Sharon Stone goes over the top but still conveys the raw anger and deep frustration of a “lost” mom.

The role of the egomaniacal ringleader Johnny Truelove is well played by Emile Hirsch (“Lords of Dogtown,” “The Emperor’s Club,” “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys”). Singer Justin Timberlake (all tattooed here) also makes a strong impression as the charismatic Frankie Ballendbacher, with a performance that might launch a viable acting career. It’s a tough role, because Frankie befriends the kids and sort of allows the bizarre events to happen. Shawn Hatosy (who was in Cassavetes’ “John Q”) is cast as Elvis Schmidt, the member of Johnny’s crew who remains somewhat of an outsider yet carries through on the order to kill Zack.

As he demonstrated in previous efforts, Cassavetes is a better director than writer. Here the script is both muddled and indulgent, with several dialogue scenes being unnecessarily long, just because the helmer feels they serve authenticity. I may be too picky but to name the tale’s anti-hero with the overused and iconic Johnny immediately positions his character on a mythic rather than realistic level.