Alpha Dog: Two Perspectives
By Josh Allan and Matt Mungle
January 24, 2007
Editors’ Note: In a slight departure from our usual reviews and commentary, this week we’re featuring two critics’ perspectives on the same film: Nick Cassavetes’ drama Alpha Dog. You’ll start to see more of these features in the coming weeks.
Choice: Josh Allan
Choice is a funny thing. The choices we make will inevitably dictate what we become, and whether we like it or not, we will become the choices we make. The trick comes when we don’t believe that we actually have the ability to make a choice anymore.
One could say that Alpha Dog is a story about how good kids got caught up in the wrong crowd. One could say that it’s about the life of spoiled, rich, wannabe thugs. One could say it’s about absent and wretched parenting (as indicated by a calloused Bruce Willis in the first 15 seconds of the film). But from the ubiquitous sleeve tattoos to the gratuitous, degrading rap in the background to the obscene amounts of weed smoked in nearly every scene, Alpha Dog most of all proves to us that clichés are aptly named after heavy doses of reality. The gravity of this tragic reality bites cleanly through this slightly-Hollywoodized version of a true crime drama that happened a few short years ago. Director Nick Cassavetes recreated a world that I found almost shockingly realistic and scarily believable.
I live just outside of metro Los Angeles, and I watched this movie on opening weekend with about 150 teenagers. Perhaps my mid-20s-ness has begun to show through, but I found the reactions of my younger theater-mates to be one of the most fascinating parts of watching this movie. They were mostly raucous and laughed at some of what I would consider to be the most inappropriate times. Now, I think swearing is as funny as the next guy (seriously), but when did a blatant disregard for decency become the equivalent of stand-up comedy? No, I’m fairly certain this observation was simply another confirmation for me that I was, in fact, watching art mimic real life—that, or I was watching art create reality. Perhaps there is no distinction anymore. Welcome to Hollywood, baby.
Aside from Ben Foster’s marvelously quirky and fabulously neurotic Jake Mazursky, the emotional ballast largely comes from Justin Timberlake’s Frankie Ballenbacher, whose conflicted inner torture is blatant and excellent. I truly enjoyed watching Cassavetes’ characters develop and progress beyond what potentially could have been trite and shallow.
When it comes down to it, though, for me this movie was all about choice. I’ve come to believe that what we might call “decisions” are actually the inevitable result of thousands, if not millions, of seemingly meaningless, trivial choices. We, in a sense, destine ourselves to the future of our own choosing by the stops we make along life’s highway. The tragedy of Alpha Dog does not lie solely in the bad choices made—though they are there as well—but in the horrific lie of the group mentality that choice is not yours to make.
Near the end of the film, Timberlake’s character promises that he would never hurt the boy who has became the liability, and we believe him. He’s telling the absolute truth. Unfortunately, if you know the story, harm is the inexorable conclusion. Frankie has laid his cards down, and there is no turning back, because he decided a long time ago that the choice was never really his to make.
Disturbing and Grand: Matt Mungle
As I sit down to write this review I am troubled by a couple of things. One, that events like those depicted here go on in our world daily. Two, that I have no answer or means to fix or change these events. Three, and most traumatic of all, I have to admit that I really liked Justin Timberlake as an actor. I never thought a movie with Timberlake could be good, much less intensely captivating. Since I have to now eat crow, I would like it with a side of broccoli if possible.
Alpha Dog is as disturbing as it is grand. Human depravity converging on the eyes and ears with blunt force trauma. Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook), Alpha Dog is inspired by the true story of the youngest person ever to make the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a drug-dealing, angst-filled, no-home-training punk. When he retaliates against Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) for a deal gone bad by kidnapping Jake’s little brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), lives spiral even farther out of control. Cassavetes shows the ugly side of this lifestyle and doesn’t try to glamorize it. He shows what happens when kids are not taught any sort of respect for parents, society or themselves.
The characters in this film make the outsiders look like the Mickey Mouse Club, Lords of Dogtown like Sesame Street. Be advised that this movie is not for the faint of heart or virgin of ear. The language and context are brutal. Drug use and sex run rampant. I say all this so that you will know the type of characters that Cassavetes is depicting. The style of writing and directing have to match the intensity of the events. That is what makes this film work. That and the acting. As an ensemble, the cast of Alpha Dog move as one. The way they play off each other helps build the realness of the film and adds one more piece to the building climax. Timberlake could have started off slow as an actor and starred in a few romantic comedies to get his feet wet. But he dives into a volatile role and plays it for all it’s worth. It’s fluid and natural. But don’t expect the “Cry Me a River” Justin. This is explicit Justin to the extreme.
Bottom line, this film is not for everyone. Only the most diehard of film fanatics will understand or appreciate it. This is not even remotely entertainment. It is a gritty look at a moment in time through the eyes of a creative and talented director. Needless to say, Alpha Dog is rated R for pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity. And that is an understatement. I can’t recommend it for anyone under 19 due to the content and theme. Timberlake’s younger fans will be drawn by the name but this is not the place for them. But never before have I meant it as strongly when I say be wise and know before you go.
Matt Mungle is a member of the North Texas Film Critics Association (NTFCA) and hosts the syndicated radio show Spin 180. With his wife Cindy, he does a weekly radio feature, The Mungles on Movies.
Josh Allan is an artist/singer/songwriter/producer/writer who lives outside of Los Angeles, California. He has a penchant for holistic philosophies, guitars, beauty, Jesus and flip-flops. Visit his online casa.