The Banality of Evil

Maui Time | January 11, 2007
The Banality of Evil

Nick Cassavetes Tells the Tale of Jesse James Hollywood

Alpha Dog (Three Stars) (745 words)

By Cole Smithey

Here's a different take on the docudrama format. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”) dives headfirst into the true story of a group of Southern California rich kids that goofed their way into kidnapping and sudden violence in August of 2000. With a dream cast of the youngest and brightest actors of the day, Cassavetes creates a movie that feels like you're watching an apathetic group of kids riding down a progressively steeper incline in an unmanned vehicle. The alpha dog of the film's title is bully drug dealer Johnny Truelove (based on the real life Jesse James Hollywood) whose outsized ego gets taken down a peg by Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) a local junkie who aggressively refuses to pony up the $1000 he owes. Johnny (Emile Hirsch – “Lords of Dogtown”) haphazardly kidnaps Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), and has the immature kid spirited away from the San Fernando Valley to Palm Springs thinking Jake will automatically pay up. As days pass, everyone but Johnny and his indebted lackey Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) underestimate the depth of the imminent trouble ahead. Sharon Stone adds a touch of virtuosity to the already strong ensemble performances in this precisely drawn lineage of a true crime.

The milieu of So Cal white teen thugs is an exasperating phenomenon that eluded director Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA”) in her spastic film “Havoc” (written by “Traffic” screenwriter Stephen Gaghan) due to some gross miscasting and an underdeveloped and exploitative script that banked on shock value over narrative depth. Cassavetes avoids these transparent land mines by exploring the reality of the film’s unsupervised teens while intercutting documentary-styled interviews with parents of the protagonist (Zack) and the prime antagonist (Johnny). Bruce Willis gives a believably irreverent performance as Johnny’s criminally savvy dad Sonny, and his character’s background involvement in the story informs much of the subtext of Johnny’s narcissistic behavior. Willis, who made a splash in a similarly minor but crucial role in last year’s “Fast Food Nation,” strikes a perfect balance of deception and cruelty that opens up a place for Johnny’s lurking violence to resonate from. For her part as Olivia Mazursky, Jake and Zack’s violated mother, Sharon Stone daringly exposes an intellectual and emotional weakness that is devastating to behold. Stone’s direct-to-camera monologue near the end of the movie is a breathtaking zinger of humility and humanity that puts a lump in your throat while contextualizing the aftermath of her son’s crisis. It also shows heretofore-unseen acting chops that put Sharon Stone in a class with the Meryl Streeps of the world.

After the kidnapping occurs, Cassavetes begins time-stamping scenes and cataloging with subtitles incidental witnesses whose testimony will later expose the abduction that goes largely unnoticed in the unsupervised palatial house of Johnny’s spoiled slacker friend Frankie (played with understated zeal by Justin Timberlake). It’s here that the geeky and likable Zack gets his first taste of teen debauchery at a lively party where he becomes an honored guest. When two bikini-clad girls seduce Zack in Frankie’s lush swimming pool at night, the kidnap victim gets enough sexual distraction from his subversively doomed circumstances that he tells Johnny that he is there of his own free will. Zack’s naive willingness to relish the fruit of his coerced circumstances works as a self-deception that backfires when Johnny tests the limits of his dominion over Elvis.

“Alpha Dog” is a topical docudrama that errs on the side of dramatic license. Johnny Truelove is impressive for his ferocious skill at dominating those around him with humiliation and intimidation that makes Dick Cheney look like a rank amateur. Emile Hirsch’s smallish stature adds to Johnny’s Napoleonic complex that permeates the story and provides an undertow of subtext that lingers in the viewer’s mind after the closing credits have rolled. Nick Cassavetes was allowed access to legal files from prosecuting attorneys with the idea that giving greater exposure to the story might aid in capturing Johnny Truelove who until recently was still at large although his four accomplices were convicted not long after the incident occurred. As such, the movie comes with an added amount of social baggage and daringness on Cassavetes’ part to take responsibility for a film that could set off a firestorm of legal battles for him personally. There is always another alpha dog.

Rated R, 117 mins. (B)


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