Alpha Dog, Nick Cassavetes’s new guns-‘n’-posses yarn, is predictably bad. That is to say, it fails where one might expect it to fail: cuts are alternately languid and meth-fueled, the dialogue stilted or overly gangish. In case you’re wondering, Justin Timberlake adds little to the production, but he doesn’t hamper it, either. Like the other characters, he’s mostly just along for the ride—until he has to cap a kid. Then he totally freaks.
The film begins with a stultifying three-minute montage of baby videos, set to Eva Cassidy’s cover of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Ms. C. died of melanoma in the mid-nineties, and her rendition manages to strip away what little subtlety the original possessed. So why the name-check? Because, in Cassavetes’s mind, this slice of SoCal vice-porn means something. It’s the anti-Oz. Message: High Life invariably dissipates into, well, something less glam. The director’s over-the-toppery works, I argue, on a more profound level. The plot’s worthless, but the movie is self-aware. It’s smarter than it lets on.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s examine the cast. We first meet Bruce Willis’s Sonny Truelove, father of Johnny Truelove, Claremont’s A-1 dope-pusher. Bruce has liver spots galore and one of the fakest fake foreheads in the history of cinema. He chain smokes (more on that in a tick), and he’s being interviewed. Maybe Johnny sells a little reefer, Sonny says, but he’s an OK kid.
Next we find young True, Timberlake’s Frankie, and a few other meatheads pumping iron. Elvis, presumably the newest goon in the goon-clique, has been at it all day, mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges. He wants a brew and a go at the lat machine. But Johnny’s pissed and Frankie means business—get out and scrub the cars, they scream, and if you finish early, do it again. E-man’s psychology might as well be tattooed on his enormo triceps. He’s got something to prove, and he’ll do anything—ANYTHING—to prove it.
There’s so much more—Jake Mazursky (played by Six Feet Under alum Ben Foster, who should know better) owes Johnny T. a boatload of cash; his fifteen-year-old brother Zack is fed up like whoa with Sharon Stone’s overbearing mom figure; Mr. Mazursky can’t keep giving his elder son the cabbage he needs. After crashing True’s party with nothing in his pockets, Jake and the boss are at loggerheads, and twenty minutes later old Jakey’s bashing windows and taking a dump on the TV room rug. Johnny wants to get back, and when he sees Zack on the streets, he kidnaps the kid. Frankie and some other dudes you might meet at a Slipknot concert become the babysitters.
The film’s midsection has a spring-break-at-Daytona-Beach feel, complete with cheap booze, cheaper-looking danger-babes, and loads of bass. Zack loves captivity; this is Stockholm Syndrome without the initial friction. Frankie even offers to let him go, before things start to heat up. But why leave? There’s tail in his future, obvi, and life on the fringe is alluring. The only hitch comes when True phones a lawyer and finds out that kidnapping has its consequences. The crew could end up in San Quentin forever. Do they risk letting Zack go?
The answer, of course, is a semi-automatic HELL NO—Elvis wants to be a pal, remember, and Cassavetes needs dearly to put his guys on the run. True’s the smartest, ditching his lady and bouncing around Latin America, probably kiting checks. He’s caught, though, like the rest of them. Here everyone gets his just desserts. But I said this schlock-fest had something to offer, right? Well it does: three things, to be exact.
1. An elaboration of the significance of the cigarette. True smokes overhand, angrily. He sucks in hard, too, leaving a trail that curls around his nose. From Willis’s scene onward, we know these aren’t just cigs—they’re cultural currency. Your chick smokes after sex (or after an attempt at sex; Johnny’s less dependable when on the lam). You kick a bate at parties, or when you’re talking business with the boys, or when you’re in a real bind. No coincidence, then, that T. and Frankie share one as the former pitches the murder idea. No shittin’, says the Marlboro, this is the real deal.
Cinema’s had its fair share of dramatic smokers. But there’s a certain amount of discomfort in the way Alpha Dog’s heavies go about it. Fact is, Frankie and True started the habit the way Zack did: an older dude offered to hang a nail with them, they went outside, talked pussy. No one is born a smoker, and to Cassavetes, no one is really made one. Cigarettes embody life’s bigger road-blocks—in the smoke we compartmentalize our anguish, reduce it to something more manageable. Then we go about our day, being chummy or eating healthily, figuring it all balances on a cosmic rap sheet. These are folks who obsessively track the right thing or the wrong thing, yet their ethical calculus never really transcends the stuff of middle-school playgrounds.
2. The three-way. Oh shit yes, the three-way. Hate to break it to you, but Zack loses his flower to two chicks in a pool. All three hop in naked; big-eyed gal no. 1 blindfolds him, and they play a bit of Marco Polo. Tellingly, though, our dude finds one (the legitimate romantic interest) without managing to alienate the other. She’s content with her sideline-chick status, and so they all have a make-out session onscreen. A shy cut-away goes on to say that they’re doin’ it.
A problem arises: Zack’s actually crushing on the first. She knows it, too, but it takes the other blonde to kick-start the night. Is our victim just an opportunist? Cassavetes stresses the nature of the male conquest—what’s more important, both for the boy and the big-eyed gal, is the Bildung, the construction of the man. Ms. Crush is happy to share the wealth, and her friend is obliging, because both understand the situation’s profundity. He’s fifteen, he’s a virgin, he’s new to the party, and he needs this. We’ve a feeling, too, that Zack might not last the night, and the enterprise is tinged with despair. The hero’s battle preparation—an epic trope thousands of years old—is here perverted; fresh off his first sexual experience, Zack hops in a car and promptly, cheerfully rides to his death.
3. Grainy interview footage. Sharon Stone, resplendent in her fat suit, speaks. When my son died, she sobs, I died. Cassavetes has done little to develop her character; in the first couple acts she is mostly a mouth, then a (literally) pushy mom. She’s up in her husband’s, her stepson’s, and everyone else’s grill, and we believe Zack when he says she’s a loving gal. There’s just no reason to care. This interview, painful in its intimacy, makes about as little sense as Sonny’s, at the beginning of the film. Simply put, Sharon is ludicrous, the scene cringe-inducing. The worst aspects of the Real World confession booth are here writ large, and the director, knowingly or unknowingly, gives them their full due. After all, what do we truly enjoy about reality television? The experience-as-simulacrum? Or the damning banality of Joe Sixpack being himself?
Indeed, Alpha Dog distils more than a few aspects of the PoMo predicament. When Zack begs for his life, we don’t feel sorry for him—we want him to shut his yap. The film is shocking, but not when it intends to be. The director could line up twenty fifteen-year-olds and have his way with them. He could add pit bulls, toss some crank in, double the gratuitous, meaningless sex and violence. But none of that would match the work’s subconscious. True twitches as if burdened by the camera; Frankie painfully laughs at his own jokes. This is a movie that knows it is being watched. The fictional catastrophe, ridiculous in its own right, gains gravity in transmission. We consume it.
And in doing so, we confront our reflection. Our own eyes, like Stone’s or Willis’s—bleary, blood-shot, lifeless.