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Alpha Dog

Movie Review


Published January 17, 2007 at 5:00 a.m.

Here's a different take on the docudrama format. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) dives headfirst into the true story of a group of Southern California rich kids who goofed their way into kidnapping and violence in August 2000. With a dream cast of the youngest and brightest actors of the day, Cassavetes creates a movie that makes you feel like you're watching apathetic kids riding down a progressively steeper incline in an unmanned vehicle.

The alpha dog of the film's title is bully drug dealer Johnny Truelove (based on the real-life Jesse James Hollywood), whose outsized ego gets taken down a peg by Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) - a local junkie who refuses to pony up the $1000 he owes. Johnny (Emile Hirsch, Lords of Dogtown) kidnaps Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), and has the immature kid spirited away from the San Fernando Valley to Palm Springs, thinking Jake will automatically pay up. As days pass, everyone but Johnny and his indebted lackey Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) underestimates the trouble ahead. Sharon Stone adds a touch of virtuosity to the already strong ensemble performances.

The milieu of So Cal white teen thugs eluded director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) in her spastic film Havoc (written by Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan), which was grossly miscast and relied on an underdeveloped script that favored shock value over narrative depth. Cassavetes avoids these land mines by exploring the reality of the film's unsupervised teens while intercutting documentary-style interviews with Zack and Johnny's parents. Bruce Willis gives a believably irreverent performance as Johnny's criminally savvy dad Sonny. Willis, who made a splash in a similarly minor but crucial role in last year's Fast Food Nation, strikes the perfect balance between deception and cruelty.

In her role as Olivia Mazursky, Jake and Zack's violated mother, Stone exposes an intellectual and emotional weakness that's devastating to behold. Her monologue near the end of the movie is a breathtaking zinger of humility and humanity that puts a lump in your throat while contextualizing her son's crisis. It also shows heretofore unseen acting chops that put Stone in a class with Meryl Streep.

After the kidnapping occurs, Cassavetes begins time-stamping scenes and cataloguing with subtitles incidental witnesses whose testimony will later expose the abduction, which goes largely unnoticed in the palatial, unsupervised house of Johnny's slacker friend Frankie (played with understated zeal by Justin Timberlake). It's here, at a lively party where he becomes an honored guest, that the geeky, likable Zack gets his first taste of teen debauchery. When two bikini-clad girls seduce him in Frankie's swimming pool, the sexually distracted kidnap victim tells Johnny that he's there of his own free will. Zack's naïve willingness to relish the fruit of his coerced circumstances backfires when Johnny tests the limits of his dominion over Elvis.

Alpha Dog is a topical docudrama that errs on the side of dramatic license. Johnny Truelove is impressive for his ferocious skill at dominating those around him with humiliation and intimidation. Emile Hirsch's smallish stature adds to Johnny's Napoleon complex, which permeates the story and lingers in the mind after the closing credits have rolled.

Prosecuting attorneys allowed Cassavetes access to legal files in hopes that giving the story greater exposure would aid in capturing Johnny Truelove; until recently he was still at large, though his accomplices were convicted not long after the incident occurred. The movie thus comes with added social baggage. It was daring of Cassavetes to take responsibility for a film that could set off a firestorm of legal battles. There is always another alpha dog.