Bring it on Down to Alleged-Murder-Ville



Alpha Dog
Dir. and writ. Nick Cassavetes; feat. Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Harry Dean Stanton, Christopher Marquette (R)

According to the Associated Press, 25-year-old American expatriate Jesse James Hollywood (which, apparently, is somehow not a pseudonym), formerly of Los Angeles, California, was teaching English and cohabitating with a young woman in a “fashionable” area of Brazil when he was picked up and extradited in March 2005 for his role in the 2000 Stateside disappearance of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. Around the same time, coincidentally, writer-director Nick Cassavetes (son of indie-cine patriarch John) was in post-production on a fictionalized celluloid account of the inchoate-but-eventful life of Hollywood, who at 20 became the youngest target on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. A re-shot ending and trumped court appeal later (James Blatt, lawyer for the aptly surnamed kid, tried to halt the film’s release on grounds that it might compromise jury impartiality), we have Alpha Dog.

Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) — just a pup himself, at 21 — plays Johnny Truelove, a maddeningly smug dealer and baby-don to a layabout pack of rich, young, tat-laden SoCal punks inured to a daily regimen of posturing; bong hits; awkward, syncopated swearing; more posturing; occasional sex-as-sport; and telling-one-another-to-suck-one-another’s-dicks.

At one point, amid the customary hail of misogynistic slings and homophobic arrows, one of these inveterate suburban posers ridicules the protagonists of a gangsta-rap video for not being “street” enough, saying that such TV spots are all that most rappers are willing to “shoot.” Which, of course, would seem to suggest that he and his fellows, by contrast, disaffectedly cap fools on the regular.

Not quite the case, we learn, as we’re treated a bit later to a revelatory scene in which, following a showy display of tough talk while surrounded by allies, an armed-and-alone Truelove (the supposedly super-aggressive “Dog” of the film’s title whose bedroom proudly and prominently exhibits a Scarface poster), cowers in the shadows during a retaliatory raid by the offended party, a disrespected, hot-tempered tweaker named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) who owes Truelove money. Relating the tale the next day, Truelove fibs to pals Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and Tiko (former World Middleweight Champion boxer Fernando Vargas), saying that he wasn’t home when the carnage unfolded.

When the vengeance-minded trio fails to track down Jake, they impulsively settle for his unassuming, doe-eyed kid brother, Zach (Anton Yelchin, fresh-faced and impressive), whom they kidnap. Frankie soon takes a shine to the tractable and easygoing youngster, who charms all comers and enjoys the fast living while the suddenly bona-fide felons mull their next move. Built-in tension mounts as a seemingly inevitable conclusion is bandied about: The kid knows too much and must be silenced.

The key to purposely populating a film with patently irritating and unsympathetic characters is effective performance, and the hazards are obvious: Though we’re clearly meant to disdain these pretense-drenched junior Goodfellas, you find yourself too often itching to deck both character and actor alike. (Hirsch, for example, though effectively cast, seems at times to channel the worst parts of Eddie Furlong and latter-day Leo DiCaprio.) Of the young’n’s, underplayer Yelchin fares best, with Shawn Hatosy and Chris Marquette supporting believably. Foster works hard in the coveted druggie role and will draw raves elsewhere, but seems a hair too clownish for my tastes. Timberlake is painful early, but settles down and delivers admirably in places, particularly in the film’s best scene, which he shares with Yelchin. Sharon Stone rather nails a notably well-placed moment, too.

Alpha Dog is absurdly, agonizingly bad in places, mired alternately by unconvincing deliveries, shoddy dialogue, and a few ludicrous editing tricks; it is very nearly saved, though, by its taut final half-hour or so, in which the true-crime momentum is in full force. A simple bit of dramatic irony — characters throughout are labelled “Witness” as they are introduced — is an effective and inspired touch as well. Cassavetes’s latest is a sight better than The Notebook, to be sure, and might be worth a look if you’re curious, or into the wayward-teenagers-plus-just-as-shitty-parents-equals-true-life-havoc thread. That, or you could just rent Larry Clark’s Bully.

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