Thursday, May 03, 2007

'Alpha Dog' has bite

Writer/director Nick Cassavettes’ “Alpha Dog” shows a world of privileged suburban teens and twentysomethings playing at thug life. We’ve been shown this world before and told of its dangers, but “Alpha Dog” runs deep by exploring the line between pretending to be a tough guy and really being one.

With little to no supervision or responsibility the characters in “Alpha Dog” live a life of partying with a steady stream of drugs and alcohol and breathe in an atmosphere of testosterone, homophobia and machismo.

“Alpha Dog” chronicles the true story of the escalating beef between a would-be drug dealer, Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsh, “Lords of Dogtown”) and Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster, “X-Men 3”). When Jake comes up short on a deal Johnny kidnaps Jake’s 15-year old brother Zach (Anton Yelchin).

Zach is perfectly content being a hostage as he is tired of his overbearing mother (Sharon Stone) and wants the escape. It is left to Justin Timberlake’s Frankie to watch after Zach. He likes the kid and invites Zach to join in the party life. Things are light, fun and it all feels more like hanging out than anything dangerous, but there’s underlining menace to the whole affair.

Timberlake gives a surprisingly strong performance as a nice guy who doesn’t necessarily believe the thug life he plays at. Some will pounce at the fact that pop star Timberlake isn’t entirely believable as a gangster, but that’s the point.

Frankie wears the uniform and lives the lifestyle, but is more a goofball than a hard ass. Timberlake gives a likable performance and develops a good chemistry with Yelchin, which yields emotional payoff when things turn dark.

As the title suggests, Johnny is trying to be the top dog in his circle of faux-tough guys. He walks the walk well and has a group of loyal minions. He drinks, smokes, fights and talks hard. Hirsh gets the surface toughness down, but knows that to a degree it is only act. He gives Johnny an undercurrent of insecurity that doesn’t materialize in dialogue, but in quiet gestures and actions.

Johnny is a phony when compared to Jake, whose violent outbursts reveal a sociopath in the making. Foster, a former child actor who is making his mark as an adult by playing intense, often frightening men, gives a dynamic performance here by making Jake more than just a psycho. Jake loves his brother and isn’t necessarily a bad person, he has just started down the wrong path and can’t turn around.

“Alpha Dog” is the kind of film that blurs the line between independent and mainstream cinema. While it features big names like Stone, Timberlake and Bruce Willis as Johnny’s father, it is not as glossy or neat as the typical Hollywood film. It is commendable that Cassavettes made it. After the success of his previous film, “The Notebook” he could’ve gone on to make cookie cutter romances for the rest of his career.

Even so, Cassavettes’ direction is at times questionable. Large portions of the film are so frustratingly dark that you can barely make out what’s happening. It is clear he is attempting to distance himself from the polished sheen “The Notebook,” but he is trying too hard for indie cred.

That being said, he has pulled powerful performances from everyone involved, even Stone who is heartbreaking in one scene as a mother who has hit bottom. As a writer, Cassavettes has crafted a strong cautionary drama of weight and substance.

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