Alpha Dog (Universal, R)

film_alphadog_smYelchin plays the role of the "stolen boy" with an unassuming, aw-shucks demeanor while Timberlake is riveting as Frankie. Anyone with doubts as to the former N*Sync-er's acting chops will be floored by how much of Frankie's gradual change of heart is communicated by Timberlake's eyes.

 

 

 

 

film_alphadog

A pack of bored, pot-smoking, drug-dealing, spoiled rotten suburban white kids dig themselves one hell of a hole when a kidnapping goes awry in Nick Cassavetes' tense Alpha Dog. The film, which premiered at Sundance last year, is based on the real-life story of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest men ever on the FBI's ten most-wanted list until his capture in Brazil in 2005 after five years on the lam. Hollywood is still awaiting trial, and his attorneys have naturally tried to block the film's release, saying it hurts their client's chance at a fair trial, especially after one of the District Attorneys working the case leaked huge portions of the police investigation to the filmmakers. That's a reasonable argument, to be sure, but even at the risk of tainting the jury pool, this powerful and visceral true crime story must be seen.

Hollywood's stand-in is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a drug dealer with a kickass pad and cash to spare. Johnny and his crew consider themselves real gangsters, wasting their days getting drunk, stoned, and laid as they spit hip-hop slang and rant about how hardass they are. When Jake Mazursky (a wired Ben Foster) builds a $1,200 debt he can't pay back, Johnny tries to make an example of him, but their fight comes off like a fight between two petulant siblings. Jake replies to this childish attack in kind, smashing up Johnny's house and taking a dump on his carpet. When the opportunity presents itself, Johnny makes a split second decision to kidnap Jake's kid brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) as collateral. And that's when everything starts to go wrong.

The focus of the film is scattershot for many of the early scenes, jumping between Johnny, his father Sonny (Bruce Willis), Jake's desperate attempts to dig up some cash, and Zack's life with his suffocatingly overbearing WASP parents (David Thornton and Sharon Stone). The heart of the movie doesn't start to beat until after the kidnapping, when Johnny's flunky Frankie (Justin Timberlake) gets the thankless task of watching Zack. Frankie gives Zack an education on the good life, opening his eyes in much the same way Jesse Eisenberg's Nick was educated by Campbell Scott in Dylan Kidd's Roger Dodger. Yelchin plays the role of the "stolen boy" with an unassuming, aw-shucks demeanor while Timberlake is riveting as Frankie. Anyone with doubts as to the former N*Sync-er's acting chops will be floored by how much of Frankie's gradual change of heart is communicated by Timberlake's eyes.

Ben Foster is pure electricity as the strung-out Jake, most notably in a scene where Jake's boss asks if he's using again; he becomes more fried with each word that comes out of his mouth before utterly exploding. For their placement in the cast list, Willis and Stone are criminally underused, though Stone gets her chance to shine at movie's end in one of the film's most unsettling scenes. Hirsch is the weakest link in the cast as Johnny, a baby-faced thug who isn't the slightest bit menacing. Surprisingly, this isn't a problem, as the movie concentrates far more on the relationship between Zack and Frankie, and Timberlake and Yelchin's phenomenal chemistry keep things moving.

Cassavetes' direction crackles with energy (it's a long way from his last movie, the tearjerker The Notebook), though he makes a few odd choices that detract from the momentum. He uses present day interviews of some of the characters as a framing sequence at the beginning and end of the film, but one of these interviews is also injected half an hour into the movie, and the transition is jarring. A few scenes are shot in constantly shifting split screens, but the effect serves mostly as a distraction as it seems to be done for no reason whatsoever.

One of Cassavetes' most effective techniques is a counter that points out each of the witnesses to Zack's abduction. As the numbers tick up, a sense of overwhelming dread oozes over the film, giving the unsettling feeling that, much like Reservoir Dogs or last year's The Departed, Alpha Dog is not going to end well for anybody. The film's climax is intense, sudden, and surprisingly jarring, given that the film is based on a true story and we already know how it will turn out. It's uncomfortable to watch, and accomplishes the stunning feat of making the audience feel like an accomplice to the crime, as if they sat and did nothing to stop this horrendous act from being committed. It's a powerful piece of filmmaking, one that demands to be seen. | Jason Green

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