Like the leaf clings to the tree,
Oh, my darling, cling to me.
For we’re like creatures in the wind, and wild is the wind.
–David Bowie, “Wild is the Wind”
“Fucking A,” yelps Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) more than once, affecting a boy’s swagger in hopes of being accepted by Johnny Truelove’s self-admiring crew. Finding Elvis lifting weights in his parents’ suburban Southern California garage, Johnny (Emile Hirsch) is displeased. While his buddies all show off their muscled chests and tattooed arms, their weights not heavy enough to affect their skinny precision, Johnny chastises Elvis, currently his least favorite, most devout follower. “Shut the fuck up,” instructs Johnny, more or less sternly. Even if he’s finished his “chores” — feeding the dog, mowing the lawn, doing Johnny’s laundry — Elvis isn’t fit to hang with the boys.
Being able to “hang with the boys” appears to be the primary motivation for almost every character in Alpha Dog, Nick Cassavetes’ movie version of the hard-to-believe-but-true story of Jesse James Hollywood, reportedly responsible for kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in 2000. (After spending some years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, Hollywood was arrested in Brazil in 2005 and currently awaits trial, a “pending” status that kept the film shelved for a year and almost prevented its release now.)
Part formal experiment, part big-screen America’s Most Wanted, and part showcase for talented young performers, the movie is both energetic and irritating. Less acute than Larry Clark’s thematically similar Bully, it’s a sensational lament for Kids Today. It begins with Eva Cassidy’s sorrowful cover version of “Over the Rainbow,” as home-movie-looking images show children laughing and playing, with their families and celebrating holidays (romping on the beach and dancing in front of a Christmas tree: could the point be more obvious?). When one youngster points a toy gun at the camera — extreme close-up of the nozzle — you get a sense of the film’s dire trajectory.
If you have any doubts, just two minutes into the film, a cut to Sonny (Bruce Willis). He leans back in a chair, resentful and cocky, asking an interviewer (Matthew Barry), “You wanna know what is this all about?” Yeah, yeah, he asserts, the moment broken up in split screens, most people will “say it’s about guns or drugs or disaffected youth,” but from Sonny’s perspective, “It’s about parenting.” While this is true enough, as the bad-behaving kids are repeatedly ignored or poorly instructed by their parents, it’s also darkly ironic, for Sonny is Johnny Truelove’s father. A drug dealer and smalltime crook himself, Sonny is hardly a decent role model. Instead, he embodies exactly what’s wrong here — selfish, angry macho posturing, “decider” of who gets to hang with him, the biggest boy.
The film then cuts back in time, showing the day-by-day chronology of the abduction and eventual murder of young Zack (Anton Yelchin). He has the deep misfortune to be the half-brother of drug addict Jake (Ben Foster), whose utter inability to contain his habit, check his aggression or look after Zack leads to disaster. (Jake is also Jewish, a self-identification he marks with Hebrew lettering on his chest, though the film doesn’t explore the tension this causes him among Truelove’s mostly whiteboy crew.) The film frames Jake’s moral and emotional lapses in relation to his loathing of his father Butch (David Thornton) and stepmother Olivia (Sharon Stone), and their half-hearted efforts to support him, depend on him, and eventually, cut him off.
No surprise, in this wholly dysfunctional environment, Zack — so naïve, so smothered by his loving mother (“I’ll be sleeping and she’ll wake me up by looking at me”) — wants to emulate Jake, whom he sees as “cool.” The fact that Jake is utterly uncool, that his rage spills out into all zippy-zappy phases of his speedy existence, is lost on Zack. For one thing, Jake can’t keep up with his habit. He owes Johnny money (a mere $1200), which leads Johnny to his own sort of frenzy. When the two forces collide, Zack is caught between.
The kidnapping happens almost by accident: Johnny and his boys are driving through Zack’s San Fernando neighborhood when they find him along the roadside, having slipped out his bedroom window to avoid a confrontation with his parents (mom has discovered a bong in the house). Johnny, along with Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and Tiko (Fernando Vargas), snatch Zack and haul him home, where they think they can hold him for ransom, though they don’t actually tell Jake what they’re doing until later. Their community of wannabe gangsters is small enough, however, that word spreads quickly. Jake, so jacked up that he can’t see straight, only resents the sign of aggression, and refuses to make a deal. This as he sits in the kitchen with his stepmom as she frets over her beloved boy’s disappearance.
All this leads to three days of awkward indecision, as Johnny and various hangers-on smoke pot and cigarettes, drink beer, and watch hip-hop “gangsta” videos (one called “Guns & Bitches” features shotgun blasts and bloody spurts, heavy-handed and hardly typical fare on self-censoring music television). They also party and have sex with assorted, mostly blond and vacant-seeming girls, only one of whom — Susan (Dominique Swain) — raises any question about the fact that they have a “stolen boy” at the house. For his part, Zack foolishly goes along, not taking opportunities offered him by Frankie to go home, as he believes his abduction will help his brother sort himself out; in addition, he’s pleased that pretty Julie (Amanda Seyfried) likes him enough to help him lose his virginity.
The film thus identifies a limited range of possible “reasons” for the murder, most having to do with ignorance, by the victim, the aggressors, the parents, and the 30 some “witnesses,” numbered on screen as they speak to Zack or merely pass through a scene, unaware of the situation, distracted, or just disinterested. Any of these players might have changed the event, had he or she spoken out. Johnny goes so far as to call a lawyer to ask about the consequences of kidnapping, taking the answer (“You’re looking at life!”) as an indication that he has no option but to kill Zack.
According to the film, this ridiculous decision appears determined by Johnny’s exposure to those bad rap videos and his lineage: not only does Sonny admire his son’s business sense, but Johnny is also encouraged to strut by Sonny’s mentor Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton). “You chasin’ tail?” Cosmo asks Johnny, licking his lips. (This scene takes place at a baseball field, where Sonny and Cosmo stand on one side of a chainlink fence, Johnny on the other, and yes, it’s a mighty metaphor). When he hears that Johnny might have a steady girl, Cosmo dismisses the very idea: “Men are not supposed to be monopolis,” he advises. “Plow some fuckin’ fields, you fuckin’ fruitcake.” Boys are trained to be boys. Check.
As quick and scandalous as it tries to be, Alpha Dog appears oddly taken with its subjects, even as it condemns them vigorously. On one level, the absence of interrogation parallels the boys’ own incapacity for insight, but on another, it only seems to replicate their infatuation with “exciting” media imagery. Resolved to show off their vaunted hypermasculinity, they’re unable to communicate, relying on obscenities and rap lyrics to approximate what they mean. The film’s most resonant insight — not a new one — is that the boys’ mutual violence and abuse form a sort of intimacy. No matter what else they miss, they understand their own fearfulness and disloyalty.