Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Alpha Dog

See Alpha Dog and your doubts about Justin Timberlake's acting ability should go bye, bye, bye. Playing the most likable of a gang of punk kid drug dealers, Timberlake is the human center of the film. He can move convincingly from joking around to the threat of violence in seconds. Sure, one never quite forgets that's Justin covered in fake tattoos, but given more time, I think we will be able to accept him in a variety of roles.

Alpha Dog recounts a disturbing true story about a kidnapping that goes awry. Johnny True Love (Emile Hirsch), the leader of a youth drug dealing gang, decides on a whim to motivate his deadbeat client Jake (a riveting Ben Foster) by kidnapping Jake's 15-year-old brother, Zack. One of Johnny's henchmen, Frankie (Timberlake) is charged with keeping the boy hidden until Johnny can either get the money Jake owes him or figure out another way to resolve the situation. Frankie takes Zack to his dad's house in Palm Springs for several days of partying. While Frankie and Zack become friends, Johnny begins to realize the repercussions of this kidnapping and the lack of an easy way out. Tension escalates as the film builds to a violent conclusion.

In some ways, Alpha Dog is just a retread of familiar "youth gone wild" territory. It would be hard to top River's Edge or the work of Larry Clark in that genre, and this film could have been pitched as "Bully meets Porky's". Zack's fun Palm Springs holiday, in which he smokes a lot of weed, gets drunk, and loses his virginity to not one but two hotties in a swimming pool, is entertaining, but an overwhelming sense of dread hangs over the film. Numerous witnesses look the other way as the kidnapping escalates, leaving the viewer with a sense of hopelessness.

Director Nick Cassavetes, known for heavy-handed films like John Q and The Notebook, had to add a moral to this story, and his message is that the apathetic and self-absorbed parents are to blame for the amoral kids. Bruce Willis is pretty flat as Johnny's dad, but then maybe that's the point. Sharon Stone is better as Zack's overprotective mother, but she is saddled with a ridiculous fat suit for some of the film, which was unnecessary and distracting. The set design, highlighted by antiseptic Palm Springs homes filled with modern furniture, conveys the emptiness of the characters' lives and the coldness of the affluent families.

The acting of the film's young stars is universally excellent and makes the film worth a look. Ben Foster nearly steals the film, with a visceral performance as a violent tweaker. One rampage involves him breaking into Johnny's house and taking a dump on his living room carpet. There is also a devastating scene where he loses his telemarketing job because his boss realizes he's high. His affection for his brother keeps him from being cartoonish. Sean Hatosy is believable as a pathetic hanger-on, Anton Yelchin conveys Zack's wonderment well, and Emile Hirsch embodies a quiet vacuousness as he grapples with terminal indecision as Johnny. All that, plus Harry Dean Stanton as a horny crony of Johnny's dad, a vision of the future for these thugged-out kids.

As this depressing yet engrossing film reminds us: the kids aren't all right.

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