Middle-class kids gone wrong in gritty true-crime story

2008-10-02 08:05

THE documentary-style Alpha Dog recounts with painstaking attention to detail the 1999 kidnap and murder of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz by a group of muddled middle-classed youths, leading to drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood becoming one of the youngest people on the FBI's most-wanted list.

Director and writer Nick Cassavetes, the son of Hollywood star screen couple John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, had strong personal ties to the film because he lives in the semi-affluent suburb where the murder took place, West Hills in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles.

He attempts to make sense of an event that involved youths who went to the same school as his daughter, many of whom he later came to know intimately.

The film has been minutely researched, and Cassavetes says the events portrayed are 95% accurate with just the names changed.

A measure of the depth to which the makers dug into the facts is that researcher Michael Mehas befriended the Santa Barbara district attorney and had access to confidential court documents.

This information is brought to the screen in detailed, gritty fashion by Cassavetes and a cast that includes Sharon Stone, playing the mother of Nick Markowitz (Zack in the film); Bruce Willis, the father of Hollywood (Johnny Truelove) and Justin Timberlake, a member of Truelove's gang.

The real stars, though, are Emile Hirsch (The Secret Lives of Altar Boys, Emperor's Club), perfectly duplicitous in his portrayal of Truelove as a manipulative drug dealer, and Anton Yelchin for his sensitive reflection of Zack.

The film recounts the three fateful days from Zack's kidnapping - a reprisal for his half-brother trashing Truelove's luxury, drug-money purchased house because of a feud over $1 200 - to his murder three days later.

Zack, believing his half-brother will bail him out and himself to be in no real danger, is taken on a 48-hour party in which he is seen by a number of youngsters who either don't know he has been kidnapped or don't see it as a problem.

In attempting to make sense of such an event taking place against a middle-class background, the director portrays a youth left free to run wild by parents who, because they have jobs, find themselves “checking in” on their kids. The youths have everything they could want, from pools, X-Boxes, lavish homes and expensive cars to security and comfort, but are drawn to a gangster lifestyle of drugs, guns and sex for the excitement of it.

But where there are guns and gang wars, things will go wrong and Truelove's crew panic and decide to kill Zack to avoid life kidnapping sentences. A gritty, though sometimes soulless, film makes interesting viewing for its detail and holds the attention well enough thanks to some fine acting.

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