Alpha Dog
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir-scr Nick Cassavetes
with Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin, Shawn Hatosy, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, David Thornton, Olivia Wilde, Dominique Swain, Amanda Seyfried, Vincent Kartheiser, Christopher Marquette, Harry Dean Stanton, Alex Kingston, Lukas Haas
release US 12.Jan.07,
UK 20.Apr.07
06/US 1h02

Pool party: Timberlake and Yelchin

hirsch foster hatosy


Alpha Dog This thinly veiled true story is a fascinating exploration of Western society, especially the way young people have had to raise themselves. The film is a little long and pushy, but it's very well-played and at times utterly harrowing.

Johnny Truelove (Hirsch) takes after his alpha-male dad (Willis), acting like a drug-dealing gangster even though he's only about 20 years old. When he gets into a nasty battle with Jake (Foster), who owes him money, Johnny and his posse (including Timberlake and Hatosy) grab Jake's 15-year-old brother Zack (Yelchin). For Zack, it's like a coming-of-age adventure with Palm Springs pool parties, drugs and girls. But for Jake it's war, and for their parents (Stone and Thornton) it's a nightmare. And now Johnny doesn't know how to get out of it.

Writer-director Cassavetes (The Notebook) takes a vividly stylistic approach, capturing the characters' lively, chaotic pace. These young thugs are flashy and loud, messy and a little jarring in the way they interact, living a superficial life of excess and indulgence just out of sight of their too-busy parents. The violence and misogyny are pretty full-on. While the interspersed doc-style interviews add a sense of context to the entire story, letting us see how the adults perceived the events.

But Cassavetes can't resist adding cautionary touches. The material is strong enough without the obvious "drugs are bad" or "kids need their parents" messages. While this and the story's structure makes it drag a bit in the final act, the film is loaded with clever touches, such as the moment when Jake goes outrageously Bruce Lee at a party or the inventive use of seedy hotel rooms. As well as a sharply intense feeling that it's building to a horrific finale.

The performances are solid across the board, with especially fine work from Hirsch, Hatosy and, yes, Timberlake as brutes who actually have a thoughtful side. They know right from wrong, but continually make bad decisions and don't have the courage to either ask for help or stand up to their friends. Yelchin has the film's only truly likeable character, and he's excellent in the role--definitely a young actor to keep an eye on.

cert 15 themes, language, drugs, violence, sexuality 29.Jan.07

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2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall