Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Top dog

This is the third in my Double Jeopardy series, which runs on Tuesdays. I'm revisiting films that I liked a lot more than the average person, to see if my affection was justified.

I watched Alpha Dog during a very emotionally charged weekend for me.

I had flown home -- as in, Los Angeles to Boston -- for less than 48 hours. A red-eye Friday night to Sunday afternoon, so I didn't even miss a day of work. My task was to bid farewell to my childhood house, which my dad was selling to allow him to move up to Maine, to live with his soon-to-be new wife. I needed to box up as much of my crap as I possibly could, most to ship out to me in Los Angeles, some to store at my mom's house, one town over. Of course, there was also the implication that I would throw out a ton of crap, but that's hard for a hoarder like me. I ended up spending way too much time poring over individual pieces of writing from high school, etc. -- the job required all the subtlety of a bulldozer, but I was acting like I could do it slowly over the course of a whole week. When really, I didn't even have the whole weekend, since I also saw a few friends and went to my sister's voice recital Saturday night.

Anyway, after a truly panicked last couple hours, and then waving goodbye to my house for the last time, I headed to the airport, where I began watching Alpha Dog. I immediately realized that I liked it more than I thought I would. But it wasn't until I was able to finish it on the plane that I really got choked up. I was totally blown away by the acting of Justin Timberlake and Anton Yelchin in the last scene, and was left with the impression that it was a powerhouse movie.

Because the film received only middling praise at best -- a 53 rating on Metacritic, smack dab in the middle of the "Mixed or Average Reviews" classification -- I've wondered since then whether it was really a good film, or if I was just an emotional wreck that weekend.

Well, I didn't get choked up last night, but I think that makes sense -- like laughing really hard at the movies, producing tears is most likely to happen the first time you watch something, and not necessarily on repeat viewings. But I do still think it's an extremely solid film, and I'll do my best to explain why.

Also, let me give a standard spoiler warning, although the facts of the real-world case portrayed in the movie are known to most people already.

For starters, this is a collection of some of the best young actors going right now -- or, going three years ago, at least. And I'm glad to say I can include Mr. Dick in a Box, Justin Timberlake, in that group. He's always entertained us on Saturday Night Live, but Alpha Dog showed he had real chops -- that he could play even deeply emotional scenes with conviction. His partner in that final scene, Anton Yelchin, first came on my radar in that film, and has since been popping up everywhere, including two of last year's biggest summer releases (Star Trek and Terminator Salvation). He gives a performance of understated brilliance as the kidnapping victim, Zack, who becomes a willing participant in his own kidnapping, in a sense, because it's also serving as his coming-of-age party.

As he's passed around between low-level hoods, most often in the possession of Timberlake's Frankie, Zack also hits one party after another, smoking from a bong here, kissing two girls in a swimming pool there. He's having such a good time, in fact, that he turns down at least one opportunity to just walk away to safety. This is what makes his unwitting final car ride to his execution spot so touching. Zack feels like he's been awakened to all the world has to offer; he talks about learning an instrument and being nicer to his mother. He feels like this is just the start, when we and everyone else in the car know it's the end. And when the realization finally sets in what's happening to him, it's devastating. Even as Frankie is wrapping duct tape around his mouth, and both boys are crying, Zack still trusts Frankie that everything is going to turn out alright, as Frankie promises. Yelchin's little hitching cries and attempts at bravery are absolutely heartbreaking as the scene progresses down its path toward inevitability.

We shouldn't leave the topic of acting before we talk about Ben Foster. This is one insane motherf**ker. He gives a raw, crazy performance of head-butting fury as Zack's older brother, whose debt to Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is what creates the kidnapping scenario in the first place. Foster's performance is somewhere between virtuoso intensity and just plain scenery chewing, but he's always a joy to watch, especially when he tears up a party full of people he doesn't know in order to get a message to Truelove. With his shaved head he's a bit reminiscent of Derek Vineyard in American History X.

The rest of the cast is more than capable, though most of them have less screen time. What I like so much about this film is that there are so many characters, but they are all kept track of well, sometimes with on-screen title cards identifying them as witnesses in the eventual trials of the principle characters. It gives the film the ensemble feeling that real life has.

And what an interesting portrayal of real life we see in Alpha Dog. The film identifies this subculture of teenage gangsters who come from privilege in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California. Most of the characters are probably in their early 20s, but they might as well be teenagers, rather than the seasoned gangsters they think they are. There's this priceless dichotomy between their tatooed, hardened street images and the palatial homes they bounce between, most owned by absentee parents who are off fueling their own drug or alcohol habits. At the same time, director Nick Cassavetes is not hitting us between the eyes with the idea that bad parenting = criminal kids. Foster's character, a depraved drug addict and violent criminal (though also loving brother and son, in his own way), is the product of a completely functional household -- well, a completely functional father, anyway. We never meet his mother, who's supposed to be awful, but his father is married to Zack's mother, and has been for at least the 15 years of Zack's life. They eat dinner as a family in the dining room and everything. (And it's worth mentioning the performance of Sharon Stone as Zack's mother. In a final harrowing interview with the camera, several years after her son's death, she has gained 40 pounds and is a mascara-streaked mess. While I think this is a strong performance, some viewers probably found it laughable. It's one of those divisive moments that you interpret differently based on your feelings about the film overall.)

But back to these kids being basically just teenagers. What I love is that they don't have real protocols in place for what to do when they have to enforce repayments of debts, etc. The whole situation escalates out of control when Foster's Jake Mazursky comes by to visit Johnny Truelove, to tell him that a deal went south and he doesn't have any money to uphold his end of the deal with Johnny. Johnny impulsive wraps a belt around Jake's neck and throws him through a glass table -- not something you want to do to a guy with Jake's hair-trigger temper. But it's clear that Johnny thought, in that moment, "Okay, I can't let people walk over me. So I have to do something to show them I'm tough, that I mean business. Here, I'll smash this guy's head through a table." The same thing essentially happens when he impulsively kidnaps Zack -- a crime of opportunity that arose merely from randomly driving by the kid when he's walking along the side of the road. They throw him in the back of a truck, not really knowing what they're planning to do with him -- and soon realize that they've already gotten in way too deep, and could be facing life sentences for what they've already done. Almost everyone in Alpha Dog is sympathetic in one way or another, because it's clear that none of them are purely malevolent -- they just don't properly understand the consequences of their actions, and make bad decisions in trying to correct the course of the ship.

Before I finish, let's talk for a minute about the writer-director, Nick Cassavetes. He's the son of the 1970s iconoclast director John Cassavetes, who made such films grungy crime-ridden films as Gloria and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I wasn't a fan of the first two films of the younger Cassavetes, She's So Lovely and Unhook the Stars, which I thought were rather too obvious attempts to parrot his father's signature style. Cassavetes caught my attention as a director to watch when he went the opposite direction for his 2004 feature The Notebook, an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Not only did I think the movie was good, but I am always impressed when a director can switch up styles so successfully -- particularly when I didn't like the direction he was going previously. Alpha Dog represented Cassavetes going back to basics in a sense -- it's a movie about violent thugs trying to navigate the criminal world. But here I didn't think Cassavetes was stealing from his father -- I thought he was making the material his own, giving it a modern update, and setting it not in grungy New York, but beautiful Palm Springs. It's a world of big-screen TVs and video games, moveable feasts of young partying, and self-stylized criminals who chose this lifestyle rather than falling into it by necessity.

Okay, so clearly I still like Alpha Dog, and I feel like there's a lot more I could write about it. But in the interest of not driving you away with sheer word length, I'll stop praising it now.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, Alpha Dog: A smart, interesting and emotionally charged recreation of a tragic crime that should never have happened. Deserved better than to be dumped in January of the year it came out (2007).


Mike Lippert said...

I was really looking forward to this movie when it came out and ended up kind of hating it. I really liked Timberlake but he's the only one who seems to really create a fully developed character. You're write about Foster (there may be a great Batman villian in him?) but the character doesn't deserve him. I mostly hated Emile Hirsch, who's Johnny Truelove isn't so much teenaged criminal mastermind as perpetually stoned moron. I don't know what he was like in real life but watching the movie it's hard to believe this guy could knock off a liquor store successful let alone be one of America's Most Wanted.

Lastly, I was shocked by how cheap looking the movie was. There's a scene towards the end (spoilers) where the kid gets shot and his bullet wounds are, for reasons that boggle my mind, computer generated and don't even look like they are a part of his body. Hell the screen is basically two different colours.

Vancetastic said...


That's fair. I knew there was a reason I didn't single out Hirsch. You're right on about his performance. It's certainly lacking in passion.

I wasn't distracted by the digital bullet holes, but now that you mention it, I did think they looked kind of funny. However, that's definitely one of those things a viewer will forgive if they're caught up in that scene. If not, well, it provides more evidence of why you WEREN'T caught up in the scene, as it were.