Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Alpha Dog (Reviewed) (In Brief)

Tragedy, it is said, is most poignant when it can be shown to have been inescapable. It is not sufficient to to merely display, in gratuitous detail, a bad thing that has happened. The power is in the force, felt by your audience, of inevitability. On this count, as a rendering of tragedy, Nick Cassavetes' "Alpha Dog" is an abject failure. The film details the kidnap and eventual killing, by various unsavory but still innocent 19 year olds, of a young teen over a drug debt in the astonishingly negligible amount of $800. The story is littered with instances in which, to borrow a turn of phrase, cooler heads may have prevailed. This sense of avoidability makes the already unpleasant task of viewing the senseless murder of a likable 15 year old, an even more sordid affair than it should be. The effect is somewhat like watching a toddler wander outside a crowded party, only to drown in a pool. Your chief reaction, in lieu of shock or contemplation, is bound to be "will someone close the fucking door?!".
The film, however, is not without its charms. First of these is the unexpected screen presence of Justin Timberlake, the only character in this movie, besides the boy victim, worth (at moments) latching on to emotionally. Although even this is somewhat of a cheat. I had the sense, leaving the theater, that Timberlake's character was painted too nice, too sympathetically. He shows, for long stretches in the film, an affable decency, and it should go without saying that decent people do not stand by for the almost entirely unmotivated execution of an adolescent. The characterization and the story do not square. That contrivance aside, Timberlake onscreen displays a reserve of warmth not often found in young actors. I'll be checking for him in the future.
I also thought the film captured the giddy, hard-to-nail aimlessness of college-eschewing post-high-school white suburbans, with their petty pot dealing, often objectified girl props, and embrace of pseudo gangster melodrama. Cassavetes even got the framed Scarface poster right. A tiny part of you is prone to envying these hedonists, floating as they do in between the bookending worlds of parental structure and full adult responsibility. For at least this fleeting moment, the fun is all theirs.
I found it bizarre that the starpower of Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone were called upon for their pooled ten minutes of screentime. It seems to me that character actors would have sufficed. They play opposite poles, as far as parenting styles go, with Willis as the enabling, possibly mob-connected, drug-supplying father and Stone the definitive, shrieking overbearing mother. Much has been made of her final scene, a docudrama style interview, performed in a fatsuit, some five years after her boy was killed. I, for one, thought she was brilliant in that scene: a small, bitterly hard portrait of a human being shattered by a single moment of senseless violence. Her despair is palpable. They say it is the greatest injury to have to outlive one's child: in the hope-drained eyes of Ms. Stone, and in the film at large, we are made to feel that pain. A shame we are denied the opportunity to derive any meaning from it.

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