Writer/Director Nick Cassavetes, fighting court battles by Hollywood's attorneys to get his new film to the big screen, changes the names and locations of the actual events to deflect attention away from the real crime, preferring to make a statement about America's disaffected youth rather than tell a captivating tale, the plotlines of which have been unfolding in real life for the past several years. This is a big mistake because the real story and the stupid decisions made by the perpetrators are far more interesting than anything Cassavetes has to say in his social commentary disguised as a pimped-out, testosterone-fueled crime drama.
Here Jesse Hollywood is renamed Johnny Truelove and played by Emile Hirsh. Truelove is a street-level marijuana distributor, supplied by his "connected" father, Sonny (Bruce Willis). Johnny is cocksure and swaggering (despite his diminutive stature) in his fragile ivory tower, respected only because of the money he makes and the status such plastic materialism garners. Johnny's persona of "Mr. Tough Guy" is challenged by only one person - a scabby, emaciated tweaker named Jake (Ben Foster) who can't muster the scratch to pay his $1,200 debt owed Johnny.
A tit-for-tat rumble for respect ensues leading to the impromptu kidnapping of Jake's little brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), by Johnny who holds the teen as a marker for assurance of payment. Zach complicates the situation when he implausibly passes on several opportunities to escape and even begins to fall in with his captors, especially the girls who seem curiously attracted, in a sexual way, to "the stolen boy." The highly impressionable Zach prefers his newfound party life to the impending punishment by his concerned parents who recently discovered his misplaced bong.
Circulating within Johnny's lawless oeuvre is a motley crew of ne'er-do-wells with too much idle time and aspirations that never reach higher than the desire to smoke every last pinch of weed in California. Led by the heavily tattooed Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Johnny's friends hang out smoking weed, and enjoying the cash flow and steady stream of willing and ready girls. Timberlake's Frankie is clearly the most difficult and nuanced character and the closest to anything resembling likeability or deserving of sympathy. And Timberlake handles the challenges surprisingly well. Stuck with watching after Zach, Frankie seems to get unwillingly caught up in the snowball of violence and consequences escalated by Johnny's reluctance to just let the kid go. Don't get me wrong. Timberlake's no Marlon Brando here nor is his character as complex as a Stanley Kowalski. But in a sea of despicability and repugnance, Timberlake manages to stay afloat with a smidge of pity. There's enough interest and connection to make us want to see if he'll do the right thing.
Cassavetes wants his film to feel like a non-fiction documentary so he includes distracting graphic timelines (a la TV's 24 and Law & Order) and disrupts the narrative with fake interviews supposedly conducted after the crimes were committed. This would probably have been a successful approach to telling the story were it not for the off-putting indictments and half-baked messages about the new suburban, white, middle-class American youth raised by mostly absent parents who prevent their children from developing their own identities or something to that effect. If you're going to dramatize it, get creative. If you want it to be a parallel reenactment, lay off the commentary.
Alpha Dog is a hard film to watch. On display are the lives of violently self-destructive kids with whom most of us have nothing in common. These are bad guys who do bad things with no respect for the consequences of leading such lives. Harsh language, ruthless violence and a propensity for disrespect are the order of the day. No one is likable and very few redeeming moments come from watching the film. Still, it's curiously intriguing and the performances of the ensemble cast are strong enough to see you through to the end. Cassavetes' experience in front of the camera shows in the way he's able to get such strong performances from the actors, especially relative newcomer Justin Timberlake.
The true story of the tragic event is indeed appealing in some sort of morbidly inquisitive way. But that curiosity can be better satisfied by a search on the Internet than in such a disjointed and preachy affair as Alpha Dog.
Screen formats: Widescreen Anamorphic 2.35:1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Language and Sound: English: Dolby Digital 5.1; French: Dolby Digital 5.1
Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access; making-of featurette.
* Featurettes -
o Making-of Featurette
o Witness Timeline
o A Cautionary Tale
Number of discs: - 1- Keepcase Packaging
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