New-Release Tuesday: Alpha Dog

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

After an argument with his parents, Zack Mazursky slips out of his bedroom to avoid further conflict; three days later he is dead. Alpha Dog, from writer and director Nick Cassavetes, tells the story of what happens in between–inspired by the real life story of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest people to appear on the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitive list.

The lightly-fictionalized movie follows a gang of suburban youths. They live a life of drugs, drinking, parties, and girls. They like to play video games; they watch gangsta rap videos. Their parents are busy with work and their own lives. Like many young people struggling with identity on the brink of adulthood, they emulate examples that are counter to their suburban culture. Circulating on the extreme periphery of this gang is young, naive Zack Mazursky.

Their ring-leader is Johnny Truelove, a small-time drug dealer and son to a father with links to organized crime. He and his band act tough, but we sense from the beginning that they are going through the motions. Underneath, they’re not as hard as they pretend to be. This is thrown into stark contrast when a drug deal with Jake Mazursky, Zack’s older brother, goes badly—putting him into debt (and thus, conflict) with Truelove.

Jake is the real deal. He’s done time and is tough and streetwise. As the conflict escalates, a chance encounter brings Johnny and his gang in contact with Zack. Almost without thinking, they seize the opportunity to grab him and use him as leverage against Jake. And with that, they slip over the edge into a criminal abyss far deeper than the shallow waters they have previously inhabited.

Exiting the theater at the press screening I attended years ago, I felt almost shell-shocked. Alpha Dog is a rough, harsh, realistic movie that gets in your face. The cinematography, the dialogue, the acting all leave you with a sense that you have journeyed into this subculture and watched these events unfold first-hand. In a sense, it is the first big drop on a rollercoaster. Things start out slow but you know what’s coming as you creep closer and closer to the top of the hill. Then you fall over the top and careen down to the bottom screaming and holding on for dear life.

It’s not just another violent gangster film, though. There are multiple themes woven through the movie that are incredibly thought-provoking. The lifestyle portrayed is one you can read about in your daily newspaper or watch on the evening news. A particularly interesting technique used by Cassavetes is a running count of people who witnessed what was going on but did nothing about it. The tally reaches nearly forty before the end of the movie. The absence of parental guidance is a telling indictment of our all-too-busy lifestyles.

Ultimately though, it’s the cast that really makes things work for Alpha Dog, especially the five once-young actors at the heart of the drama. Emile Hirsch strikes just the right tone as Johnny Truelove, cocky and self-confident when he thinks he’s in control but increasingly vulnerable as his plan falls apart. His antagonist, Jake, is played convincingly and truly scarily by Ben Foster. Foster and Hirsch have since gone on to monster roles in big films.

Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of Frankie Ballenbacher managed to surprise me by being very effective–the best work Timberlake has ever put on film. Frankie is the happy-go-lucky right-hand man to Truelove who goes along with the plan even though is heart isn’t in it. Then there is Elvis Schmidt, played by Shawn Hatosy. Elvis hangs out with the gang and wants to be accepted as an equal, and he’s willing to do just about anything to get that chance.

And of course the movie couldn’t succeed without Anton Yelchin as Zack, the genuinely likeable but not-quite innocent younger brother caught up by events. Yelchin is a talent that was lost far too soon, and he was only getting started here.

Alpha Dog is a movie you might appreciate but not necessarily one you will enjoy. There are no heroes, there is no happy ending. It is a dark movie that will challenge your thinking; I can’t imagine anyone sitting passively through it without finding something that strikes a chord within. I was prepared to dislike it as soon as the opening credits rolled but somewhere along the way I started caring about the characters, even the ones that seemed unlikeable on the surface. It’s a reminder that people we think are “bad” are usually just people that make bad choices, often without thinking through the consequences. While that doesn’t excuse their actions, it doesn’t completely let us off the hook either.

Alpha Dog is now included with your Amazon Prime subscription. You can also stream on YouTube for a small fee.