Growing Pain

Alpha Dog. Bruce Willis, Matthew Barry, Emile Hirsch, and Justin Timberlake star in a film written and directed by Nick Cassavetes.

Sigmund Freud originated the term overdetermination — “the idea that a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes at once, any one of which alone might be enough to account for the effect.” Such a concept is entirely appropriate when considering Alpha Dog, Nick Cassavetes’s devastating version of the events leading up to the murder of Nicholas Markowitz. The story, which captivated both local and national audiences and led to the placement of Jesse James Hollywood on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, is one that invites a myriad of interpretations — personal and political, emotional and objective. However, Alpha Dog is only a film, albeit one based on a true story close to the hearts, homes, and children of many in our community — but a film nonetheless. As a tragedy about the pitfalls of lost youth and the degradation of values in modern America, it triumphs. Cassavetes’s perspective — that the murder of Markowitz (named Zack Mazurksy in the film and played with guileless believability by Anton Yelchin) was caused not by one person, but by the choices made by all involved — is a credible and interesting take. All of the young actors in the film are compelling, including Justin Timberlake as Frankie Ballenbacher, Emile Hirsch as Johnny Truelove (the Jesse James Hollywood character), and Ben Foster as Zack’s older brother Jake, who brings to mind Edward Norton’s manic, hypnotizing role in American History X. Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis, and Harry Dean Stanton all have convincing turns as members of the older generation, and their few, brief scenes, which run the emotional gamut from deeply felt vulnerability to brazen duplicity, are among the most arresting moments in the film. Alpha Dog is not for everyone. However, Cassavetes has crafted a visceral and mournful movie out of a story of great tragedy. His ability to generate meaning from such a convoluted and painful reality is a testament to the transforming power of art.

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