Robin’s Underrated Gems: Alpha Dog (2006)


As I’m sure you know, I’ve done a couple of lists at The Back Row about segments from Unsolved Mysteries and I recently started wondering how many of the cases they’ve profiled were adapted into movies. Of course, some of these stories were turned into Lifetime made-for-television movies, but one of the rare cases which became a full-fledged theatrical feature was the tragic 2000 murder of Nick Markowitz. Jesse James Hollywood, the man who orchestrated the murder, was profiled as a wanted fugitive on Unsolved Mysteries and it remains one of the more harrowing stories from the show’s later years. Nick Markowitz was a 15-year old teenager from a middle class suburban family in West Hills, California, whose older half-brother, Ben Markowitz, was heavily into the drug scene. Ben owed $1,200 to Jesse James Hollywood, a 20-year old suburban drug dealer who decided to kidnap Nick and hold him hostage until Ben paid off the debt. The whole situation kept escalating out of control until Hollywood ultimately ordered his gang to execute Nick. Hollywood fled to Brazil and remained a fugitive until 2005 when he was captured and eventually sentenced to life in prison. During Hollywood’s time on the run, the prosecuting attorney on his case had been serving as a consultant on Alpha Dog, a screen adaptation of the story directed by Nick Cassavetes. The film was released a year after Hollywood’s capture and provides a vivid, unflinching chronicle of these events. It may not be a pleasant film to watch at times, but it’s very well made and is a convincing depiction of how stupidity and indifference can lead to senseless violence.

For legal reasons, the names of all the players involved in this true story have been changed for the movie. Jesse James Hollywood is now known as Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a suburban Southern California drug dealer who sells marijuana which is supplied by his father (Bruce Willis). Johnny is involved in a dispute with one of his friends, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), who owes him a $1,200 drug debt. In spite of hailing from a middle class suburban family, Jake lives a self-destructive, drug-fuelled lifestyle and is despised by his stepmother (Sharon Stone), who views Jake’s 15-year old half-brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), as the crown jewel of the family. One day, Johnny and his gang are on their way to find Jake when they happen to spot Zack walking the street and decide to kidnap him. Their plan is to hold Zack as collateral until Jake pays off his debt and Johnny assigns his friend, Frankie (Justin Timberlake), the task of watching over Zack. Over the course of the next two days, Zack is held as a hostage and encounters at least 30 witnesses who know that he has been kidnapped, but do nothing about it. The weird part is that Zack actually enjoys the whole experience because he has grown tired of his sheltered life with his overbearing family, and Johnny and his gang are allowing him the opportunity to hang out at parties, drink alcohol and smoke weed. Zack could easily escape from his predicament at any time, but he does not feel that his life is in any danger and, besides, he gets to have a three-way in a swimming pool with Amanda Seyfried and Amber Heard.

Of course, Johnny and his crew do not realize how in over their heads they really are and when Johnny discovers that he could potentially get a life sentence for the kidnapping, he orders his gang to murder Zack and bury the body. Alpha Dog is a pretty straightforward retelling of this story which offers no real surprises, but makes for a fascinating study of human nature and how it can lead to tragedy. The character of Johnny Truelove is the ultimate personification of a pathetic wannabe criminal. He pretends to be a badass tough guy, but is a complete coward at heart and clearly has no stomach for real violence. When he makes the decision to end Zack’s life, he pawns the dirty work off on his crew and stays as far away from the actual murder as possible. With a few exceptions, none of the characters in the film have any consideration for the real-world consequences of their actions. Cassavetes actually puts up a running on-screen tally of the number of witnesses who learn of Zack’s kidnapping, but do nothing about it, as many of them think the whole concept is cool and even give Zack the nickname “stolen boy”. Alpha Dog is one of the more convincing depictions of bored, spoiled suburbanite teens and their inability to take responsibility for their actions. The word “fuck” is uttered 411 times throughout the course of the movie, but you can totally believe these characters would talk like that. But even though most of these characters are completely unlikable, they are brought to life by outstanding performances all around. One of the biggest standouts is Ben Foster, who is absolutely electric as the high-strung Jake.

The most fascinating, complex character in the film is Frankie, who develops a bond with Zack and expresses genuine remorse when he learns of his impending murder, yet he still lacks the courage to do the right thing. The climactic sequence where Frankie talks the panicky Zack through the lead-up to his death and tries to assure him everything will be fine is just gut-wrenching to watch. I’m sure a lot of people initially laughed at the casting of Justin Timberlake as Frankie, but he delivers a tremendous performance here, proving that he had the chops to launch a successful acting career. Anton Yelchin also does a solid job in the role of Zack, finding the right balance between being an innocent, sympathetic kid and someone who is eager to explore his rebellious dark side. Alpha Dog’s impressive young cast features a lot of notable actors in smaller roles who would go on to bigger things, including Amanda Seyfried, Amber Heard, Olivia Wilde and Vincent Kartheiser. The two biggest names in the cast, Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone, have relatively small roles, but still make a memorable impression, particularly Stone during her character’s description of the complete emotional meltdown these events caused her. Casseteves does make a few directorial missteps, such as his strange decision to shoot the film’s opening scene in a faux-documentary style before abandoning the gimmick and bringing it back near the end of the movie. The movie also meanders and drags on a bit too long after the climax, especially during a completely (as much as I hate to say it!) pointless sex scene with a topless Olivia Wilde. But overall, Alpha Dog is a very solid, underrated piece of work. It didn’t do well at the box office, as some people wondered what the point was of chronicling such a senseless crime. But sometimes, the most senseless acts of violence provide the most insightful accounts of human nature.

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