Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Alpha Dog

Title: Alpha Dog
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Released: 2006
Staring: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Dominique Swain, Bruce Willis, Shawn Hatosy, Olivia Wilde, Sharon Stone, Ben Foster, Amanda Seyfried, Anton Yelchin

Plot: Johnny Truelove (Hirsch) a young drug dealer and son of underworld figure Sonny Truelove (Willis) orchestrates an impulsive kidnapping of Zach Mazursky (Yelchin), hoping that it will force his older brother Jake (Foster) to pay up his debts, but things soon things begin to spiral quickly out of control.

Review: Based on the events in August 2000 which lead to the murder of Nicholas Markowitz, with the film changing the names of those involved, as well as being set a year earlier, which puts the setting for the film on November 1999, which is an unusual move for a biopic but certainly not unheard of especially after “Domino” (2005), which so proudly proclaimed that it was based “on the truth and the lies” and it’s seemingly expected that the decision to make such changes to allow for the more fictional elements of the film to help link together the events which lead to Markowitz’s murder, without receiving criticism for fabrication of the facts. Still what director Cassavetes has unwittingly also created is possibly the most raw and and realistic portrayal of youth culture since Larry Clarke’s highly controversial debut “Kids” (1995) while also being equally comparable to Clarke’s own stab at the same genre with his equally controversial “Bully” (2001) a film which it is essentially the easiest to compare to, as both feature over sexed, drug fuelled suburban teens, making rash criminal choices and being forced to face the consequences of such actions.

Opening with Truelove and his crew working out while tossing about gangsta style slang and tough guy bravado, it would be hard believe that these characters have not escaped from one of Clarke’s films, especially as these are the sort of characters he tends to favour, especially with every other word seeming being a dererative of the word f**k or some other curse word, but then these are young men in their early twenties and it’s allot more realistic than the smart ass, pop culture reference heavy dialogue which usually accompanies most movie teens these days. Still these are rich kids with nothing better to do than, further their gangster fantasies as they pop pills and snort their away through adolescence, with Truelove playing ringleader to this circus of fools, all buying into the lifestyle that Truelove and his followers are trying to emulate, with Truelove in particular seemingly trying to follow in the criminal footsteps of his father, while hiding his own cowardly ways behind his tough guy bravado, a fact known all to well by the short fused Jake, whose own conflict with Truelove leads to Truelove grabbing Jake’s younger and more naive brother Zack. Interestingly this portrayal of Truelove is almost the opposite of his real life counter part, who was not only the youngest man to ever make the FBI's most wanted list, but also demonstrated high levels of intelligence which helped him elude the FBI for a number of years after the murder.

It’s once the group have grabbed Zack that things take very “Kids” esq turn, for Zack isn’t taped up to a chair for the duration of the film while being continuously tormented by his kidnappers, but instead left in the care of Frankie (Timberlake), who in turn brings him inside the groups inner circle, soon seeing Zack being caught up in the faux glamour of their world, while happily drinking, smoking weed and engaging in swimming pool threesome’s, all things his mother has seemingly worked so hard to shelter him from, especially with his older brother being now deemed a loss cause. It’s Zack's journey into faux adulthood that makes the film distinctly different from most crime dramas and did make me forget what sort of film I was watching which in a way makes the actual murder all the more shocking when it happens, especially after being lead on this hedonistic journey only for it too all come suddenly crashing to a close. Still it was these scenes which took me the most by surprise, especially having put off watching the film, expecting another teens making very bad choices movie and really not wanting to see another film trying to emulate Larry Clarke’s work, something which the British film industry has been frequently responsible for adding to and a cinematic crime that Noel Clarke has been especially guilty of adding to with trash like “Kidulthood” and it’s much unwanted sequel “Adulthood”, but here director Cassavetes has certainly managed to find his own unique voice for his characters, so that they are all individual even if they frequently seem to share the same voice.

Despite upon the films release the critics were keen to comment on the fact that Timberlake could actually act, especially as this film added to his then radical attempts to move away from his teenie bobber status and true he is very good in this film, as he was also in the much underrated “Southland Tales” (2006), here providing the moral voice of the group, as he frequently questions the situation the group have found them in, to the point were he even offers Zack an open invitation to escape, while later accepting Zack as part of the group which makes Zack’s eventual demise all the more wrenching to watch, knowing that his protector has ultimately betrayed them. Still the true standout performance here is an honour that instead belongs to Foster, who is best remembered as the nerdy love interest of Claire Fisher on “Six Feet Under” a role he is truly a polar opposite of here, were he is a 100% badass while demonstrating fighting skills I never knew he had, as demonstrated by a house party beat down, were he single handily batters numerous opponents with ease.

In terms of star power amongst the cast it is limited to Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone, with the cast at the time being comprised of largely unknown actors, despite many going on to larger roles, but both of these established actors put in strong performances, while being limited to strictly supporting with role, with Stone later donning a fat suit for her characters current day appearance as a woman truly broken by the death of her sun, while putting in a performance which is certainly one of her best in a long time, as woman who has truly lost everything, especially during the final scenes which prove to be the most emotionally powerful.

While some might grumble that the film takes liberties with the fact, with the case notes frequently being pushed into the background and largely limited to on screen notes highlighting and numbering witnesses to the case, while certainly not playing as fast and loose with the facts as “Domino” (2005) as memorably did to help cram in another shoot out and thankfully not the case here with director Cassavetes, not trading in the focus to work in more teenage flesh. Still viewed as either a youth in revolt movie or as a crime biopic, it's still a great film and one that dares to look at the darker side of popularity.


  1. Good review!

    Thought this was a decent crime thriller, but the scene when Ben Foster performed martial arts on some punks was unintentionally hilarious!

  2. Ironically I thought it was one of the best bits of the film and totally caught me off guard how much of a badass he could be. Would love to see him do more roles which showed off his fighting skills.

    For those of you let to experience this scene, please click the link below.

  3. Would definitely would be interested in a movie with Ben Foster using his martial arts skill! Hopefully he makes one soon.


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