by Jeff Meyers
Though it's hard to believe, the '80s bottom-feeding snuff comp Faces Of Death has become one of American cinema's most recent inspirations. Between the religious sadism of The Passion of the Christ, the hypnotic brutality of Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects and the cheap torture titillation of Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes, Hollywood has become a Donald Rumsfeldian abattoir of death and dismemberment. Even TV has gotten in on the act. Jack Bauer would never waste precious time on waterboarding when stripped wires and a pair of exposed nipples will do the job nicely.
Though it never delivers a blood-spattered money shot, Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog is very much in league with the above films. A long, hard march toward the pointless execution of a 15-year-old by teenage drug dealers, this inspired-by-reality tale is essentially an emotional snuff film. It's the kind of misguided effort a middle-aged director indulges in when he wants to reinvent himself as edgy.
Unlike his auteur dad, Cassevettes junior is still searching for a filmmaking identity, hopping from socially conscious thrillers (John Q) to syrupy romancers (The Notebook). While Junior may think his muddled and indulgent film is a cautionary tale, Alpha Dog plays like a sleazy mash-up of River's Edge and Menace to Society.
Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a midlevel pot dealer in 1999 who is more poseur than gangster. When he falls out with raging speed freak Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) over $1,200, he has his crew Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) impulsively snatch Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) and hold him as a "marker."
Unexpectedly, their hostage views his kidnapping as an escape from an otherwise smothering suburban existence. Zack and the teens drink, party and score with nubile young babes while Truelove freaks out about the legal consequences of his actions. Bad decisions turn worse and all the video game bonding in the world can't save Zack from his violent fate.
Though Cassavetes injects energy and style into his film (it's never boring), there's no getting around that he's less interested in exploring the dramatic core of his tale than serving up cheap thrills. His father, the late John Cassavetes, displayed an uncanny understanding of human frailty in his movies, orchestrating risky improvisations to get to the heart of his characters. His son's efforts offer up no insight or revelation as to why these kids behave the way they do, only depravity for depravity's sake.
Worse, he employs gimmicky techniques like split-screens and cinema verité to little or no effect. These sequences are technically excessive, calling too much attention to themselves, and Cassavetes' scenes continue well past their natural endings. Cassevetes constantly feels like he's milking the moment particularly in the final reel.
The young cast is mostly good with Foster (Hostage) turning into yet another scenery-chewing psychotic and Timberlake coming closest to creating a flesh-and-blood character. Conflicted but selfish, his nuanced performance proves that this pop star's acting career is worth watching. The veterans sport bad hairpieces (Bruce Willis) and misshapen fat suits (Sharon Stone) to mixed effect. Willis is smirky and predictable as Trueblood's criminal dad, and Stone gets her emotionally ravaged moment, dangerously walking the tightrope between grief and camp.
While Alpha Dog can never be accused of objectifying its victim, our sympathies for poor Zack's murder are meaningless when his killers are depicted as drug-addled two-dimensional thugs. There's nothing to be learned from the lead up to his death; the sordid final act is simply to be endured.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.