Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Alpha Dog


At the start of Alpha Dog Bruce Willis’s character, Sonny Truelove, stares a journalist down while growling “It’s about family. You look after your kids, and I’ll take care of mine”. Alpha Dog is a film about the American family, and more specifically the wealthy American family, which poses the question: why, when they have everything, do our kids turn bad?

Given that premise one might expect some pedestal climbing, but, to the credit of writer/director Cassavetes, there are no easy answers on display here.

Perhaps the one truly sympathetic character in the film, Zack Mazursky (played brilliantly by 17 year old Anton Yelchin – Hearts in Atlantis, & Along came a spider), is such because of his youth – he’s a good kid either because of genuine moral character, or simply because the opportunity to be anything different has yet to present itself to him. It’s an ambiguity that does not get resolved, as Mazursky’s murder is the central action of this film.

The story, in a nutshell: an escalating feud develops between a teen drug kingpin, Johnny Truelove (the name balks, until you find his character is based on the real-life improbably named Jesse James Hollywood), and one of his defaulting clients, Jake Mazursky – played with a magnificently over the top performance from Ben Foster as a psyched-up-and-out neo-nazi. Truelove, having suffered a humiliating break-in at the hands of Mazursky, goes to exact his revenge, backed up by his ‘boys’, only to stumble across Mazursky’s kid brother – who on impulse they kidnap. The 17 year old spends two days as a hostage, partying with the gang, smoking weed and generally having a ball, while his captors wonder what their next move should be. Kidnapping, though, carries a life-sentence, and when prison threatens Truelove decides the only reasonable solution is to have Mazursky shot. Despite the fact that scores of witnesses have seen the kid with Truelove’s gang.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the crime too inept to be credible – but as mentioned, this is a film based on a true life case (indeed, while it won’t win any Oscars, it may just set legal precedent for how Hollywood’s film-makers are allowed to approach cases sub judice, as Hollywood – the person – has only recently been brought to trial for the events depicted).

The core of the story is not unlike Frank O’Connor’s magnificent short story set during the Irish war of independence, Guests of the Nation, where I.R.A. rebels guard two British captives and develop a close releationship with them, until the order for their execution arrives. An Irish countrywoman’s cottage, though, is replaced by an MTV Cribs style pad; relationships built over nightly games of cards in O’Connor’s story replaced by nights of weed-smoking, playstation gaming, and rich, white, decadence. And just as O’Connor’s British squaddie feels at home with his captors, thinking of switching sides, so the 17 year old Jake, despite being given opportunity to escape, never leaves. Why would he – when he’s entered a music video world of money, drugs, and his own coming-of-age, which, as with any self-respecting video, involves two pretty blondes and a swimming pool.

The central dramatic relationship of the film is that between Truelove’s henchman Frankie Ballenbacher, played by Justin Timberlake, and his charge Mazursky. We see a classic friendship curve develop, with the kid slowly earning respect and friendship – becoming one of the ‘homies’.

Timberlake is superbly well-cast as Ballenbacher. He’s all faux tattoos, and no matter how hard he acts to look tough, you always get the impression that underneath there’s just a preened up Disney-club dancer. Typecast perhaps, but for this role it works perfectly, because Ballenbacher is all front. He tragically lacks courage. He lacks the courage to do either the right or the wrong thing. He merely participates. He refuses to kill Mazursky, but also refuses to save him. It’s an interesting choice of role launching the singer, as there’s virtually nothing sympathetic about this character.

This, though, is no mere star-vehicle for Timberlake, who doesn’t/isn’t allowed to dominate the film. The story depends upon the group dynamic, and this is shown through never less than competent performances from a strong cast. Place the title, Alpha Dog in the context of the group dynamic, and it’s conspicuous by its absence. In this bunch of rich losers, there is no Alpha Dog – no competition to become leader. There’s a complacence between all that places Truelove as the ‘Alpha Dog’ for no good reason other than no-one else could be bothered.

But let’s return to the family theme. In this world of adolescent fantasy, where murder comes because you couldn’t think of a better plan, there are a number of adults whom, from the framing of the film Cassavetes charges with responsibility. Who is most responsible though, is open to question. Willis’s character is involved in organised crime, and is arrogant and surly (which comes easily, it seems, to Willis), but he is shown as a loving father who does his best to help his errant son – to the point of spiriting him out of the country, perhaps. Sharon Stone plays Mazursky’s mother, who it’s implied with her obsessive love pushes her son to the point where he’s happy to be held hostage and doesn’t think of making a run for home. What’s a parent to do…

Swithing off MTV might be a start.

Watch the Alpha Dog trailer

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