Alpha Dog

Alpha Dog

***

Reviewed by: Chris

Have you ever done something really stupid? Just on the spur of the moment?

We all have. Maybe, right now, remember one time if you can. How did that feel? What if, instead of quickly admitting your mistake, you paint yourself further into a corner? Imagine backing down would be too embarrassing! Peer pressure prevents you from being 'wrong'. You have to defend your position...

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Alpha Dog, Johnny Truelove, is based on a real life character, Jesse James Hollywood. We are given to assume Hollywood did just that, because the prosecuting attorney gave these filmmakers his files. Only one catch - it was before Jesse went to trial.

But don't let the background turn you off the film yet. Let's examine it from a purely cinematic point of view. There's great acting, great editing and great direction.

Johnny is a white, Californian, middle-class kid who does a lot of hash (which he buys from his respectable dad, Bruce Willis). He also sells large amounts and doesn't worry about getting caught.

His acquaintance Jake (Ben Foster) is a crystal meth addict. Jake and brother Zach are from a more conservative white, middle-class family. Their mother (Sharon Stone) is a bit overbearing. When their parents find Zach using hash to relax, they give him a hard time.

Although Johnny is living in a modern-day hippie paradise, things get ugly when Jake can't pay him money he owes and turns violent. Jake then goes to Johnny's luxury apartment, smashes it up, and defecates on the carpet. Johnny is watching from the dark, but tells his friends he was 'out at the time'. On impulse, Johnny and his pals kidnap Zach.

Zach is quite happy to be kidnapped. He gets to smoke lots of hash, lose his virginity, and hang out with many 'cool dudes'. Realising too late the kidnap could land them in hot water, Johnny starts to panic and make rash decisions.

Alpha Dog could be an unremarkable and formulaic film but is enlivened by strong performances. Sharon Stone (who at one point is unrecognisable for several minutes), Harry Dean Stanton, and Bruce Willis all provide background strength and stability that allows the younger actors to shine. Justin Timberlake, as Johnny's emotionally torn friend Frankie, demonstrates skills well beyond singing and songwriting in a very nuanced and conflicted role. Ben Foster's character is unnervingly realistic. The ensemble works well, gelling convincingly. Each is interesting. Each is authentic. A tight script and firm director's hand keep our attention without resorting to manic pacing. A tastefully selected soundtrack, from Eva Cassidy's evocative rendering of Over The Rainbow to Bowie's haunting Wild Is The Wind adds to the overall stylishness. But it is the motivations that seem so repugnant, as if the filmmakers had, in a way, boxed themselves into stupidity almost as bad as their characters'.

We started with the moral morass of shamelessly portraying real life sub judice proceedings in a feature film (court interventions ensured the filmmakers changed names). On top of that is the questionable way drugs are portrayed. The hash-users, apart from being layabouts, seem to do themselves and others no harm. Unpaid debts, from a meth addict and burglar, draw them into a violent course of events that would not have occurred were the sale of hash lawful and regulated. Alpha Dog fails to differentiate and promotes a very questionable 'all drugs are evil' message. It tries to say that children take drugs because of parental alienation. Director Nick Cassavetes claims, as does an intro that moves from grainy, sentimental images of childhood to an interview with Johnny's dad, that the issue is not one of drugs but of parenting. For someone who is so keen on spotting shortcomings, his lack of insights or moral discernment sit particularly uneasily.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2007
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The party-hearty lifestyle of bored Californian rich kids is rocked to the core when a botched drug deal has tragic consequences.
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Jeff Robson ***

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Writer: Nick Cassavetes

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Fernando Vargas, Vincent Kartheiser, Justin Timberlake, Shawn Hatosy, Bruce Willis, Matthew Barry, Heather Wahlquist, Alex Solowitz, Alec Vigil, Harry Dean Stanton

Year: 2006

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2006

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