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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