Alpha Dog
Reviewed in January 2007
Director: Nick Cassavetes. Cast: Emile Hirsch, Anton Yelchin, Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Heather Wahlquist, Dominique Swain, Amanda Seyfried, Chris Marquette, James Molina, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, David Thornton, Harry Dean Stanton, Alex Kingston, Janet Jones, Alan Thicke. Screenplay: Nick Cassavetes.

Photo © 2007 Paramount Pictures/MTV Films
As it happens, not all dogs to to heaven. Some go straight to hell, and Alpha Dog gets there faster and stays there longer than most. Nothing invites or finally merits the grandeur of the big screen in this tawdry, inert story about a clutch of beastly high-school narcissists, led by Emile Hirsch's Johnny Truelove, who kidnap and kill the younger brother of their nemesis, an equal but apparently opposite ignoramus named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster). The only reason Alpha Dog didn't end its miserable life as an episode of America's Most Wanted is that director-screenwriter Nick Cassavetes wouldn't have been allowed to indulge his large cast of twentysomethings in nearly so much foul-mouthed improvisation, nor (though this is perhaps debatable) would he have been licensed by a network to linger quite so long on their pert, sculpted bodies. As it is, the sun-dappled pageants of fair flesh—literally so, since Alpha Dog can barely fathom the existence of non-white people—at least extend a welcome relief from other scenes where Robert Fraisse, who once upon a time shot Jean Jacques Annaud's contemplative adaptations of The Lover and Seven Years in Tibet, has not so much photographed Alpha Dog as cudgeled it onto the screen, particularly in scenes where harsh, high-contrast lighting is intended as a kind of inexpensive in-camera aging effect. Following the daisy-chain of Alpha Dog's felonies, these same scenes are already weighed down by the dismal spectacle of fully adult actors trying to impart gravity unto the empty proceedings by treating this script as dinner-theater Aeschylus. Sharon Stone rages and quivers as the despondent mother of the dead boy until the seams of her fat suit actually start popping around her wrists. You'd think editor Alan Heim (All That Jazz, American History X) would know enough to cut away from such a gruesome and risible spectacle, but the cutting in Alpha Dog is as hysterical, portentous, and arbitrary as the lighting.

What we end up with is a screeching, poorly shot, and flagrantly indulged troupe of young Hollywood aspirants, too green to be fully blamed for their misplaced trust in a director who's never made such a bad movie, but too promising in other films to be fully acquitted for the scurrilous impulses they betray in this one. Perhaps Ben Foster is trying to ferret his way out of certain humiliation by playing Jake as such an eye-popping, overstated cartoon of an id-monster, but Cassavetes lacks both the skill and the inclination to shape his scenes as knowing parody. Dominique Swain, Adrian Lyne's Lolita of yesteryear, is just as unbearably over-the-top, but with rather less intimation that she's "going for" a "take" on her non-character that isn't panning out. Heather Wahlquist is something less than a disaster as Jake's girlfriend, who is skanky as all get-out but who nonetheless evinces something like an unspoken tenderness for the doomed, hilariously beatified Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), the same boy who unwittingly climbs to the scene of his own hilltop execution with this benediction on his lips: "I know it's kind of gay, but I think my Mom is, like, the shit!... I should really be nicer to her." The Shakespearean diction is further abetted, like most of the lines in Alpha Dog, by dramatic lunacy, since Zack's interactions with his parents have amounted to nothing but angsty combat, which is why he fled through his bedroom window and ended up a smiley-faced hostage to begin with.

If Alpha Dog attains any lasting notoriety, it will doubtless be as the movie in which Justin Timberlake is bare-chested for almost all of his scenes, and fond, too, of vividly patterned and precipitously low-slung trousers. Justin (we shall not call him "Timberlake") is the one member of the core ensemble who seems to think he should compose a free-standing character instead of just selling the god-awful but self-congratulatory vulgarity of the script, and he twitches and natters with some measure of panache at the edges of several scenes. Still, amid the whingingly tearful act of prepping Zack for death by firing squad, he too is finally swallowed by the maw of the movie's bizarrely earnest enactment of absurd and deplorable behavior, none of it any more plausible for being drawn from a real case. The film is unquestionably a symptom of the carnivorous hedonism, gutted attention span, and eroded ethical sense which it purports to excoriate as a sort of Public Service Announcement to the very demographic it glorifies and to whom it panders. As someone who actually sat through Bully, I can say that Alpha Dog is like a Larry Clark movie that can't even be bothered to finesse its prurience with the genuine sadomasochist's careful attention to discipline, method, and suspense. I'll spend the next twelve months seeing plenty of bad movies, and saying to myself or my viewing companions, "Well, it isn't as bad as Alpha Dog." F

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