Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Alpha Dog

Two movies were simulcast on TV late last night: one a great movie, the other a good movie. I watched them both at the same time, alternating between one and the other. Of course, that’s not the best way to see a movie, but it’s a good way to sample a movie. To find out if the movie is worthy watching in the first place.

Before I proceed any further, permit me to define what I mean by a good movie, in contrast to a great movie. A movie can be good in either of two ways:

i) Some good movies had the potential for greatness if only they had a great director to make the most of the raw material.

ii) Other movies are about as good as they could be given the raw material. There’s not much room for improvement, because the underlying material limits their potential excellence. They can’t rise above the level of the underlying material.

That doesn’t mean that good movies of the second variety aren’t worthwhile. They may dramatize themes which are worthy of dramatization.

Fried chicken isn’t gourmet food, but it’s perfectly good food in its own right. And a steady diet of gourmet food might begin to pall.

The two movies I saw were Alpha Dog and I’m Not Scared. I’m Not Scared is an Italian film (Io non ho paura). A complex film which succeeds at several different levels. A film that’s repays repeated viewing. It’s only weakness is a storybook ending which is a little too good to be true.

Needless to say, Alpha Dog is a very different sort of film. Hardly on the same plane.

Out of curiosity, I glanced at some of the reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes. Many of the “Top Critics” panned the film.

Some critics pan the film because it lacks character development. But that misses the point. These are inherently shallow characters. There’s no room for character development when the character is so superficial to begin with.

Of course, you could criticize a film for having shallow characters. However, a lot of men and women are shallow individuals, so their superficiality is realistic.

Speaking of realism, one thing that Alpha Dog has going for it is the courage to avoid a tacked-on happy ending. That’s quite rare for a Hollywood film. In general, directors and studios insist on giving every film an artificially upbeat ending, even if there’s nothing in the plot which justifies that outcome.

It’s refreshing to see a film with a grim worldview which is faithful to its grim worldview–which relentlessly pursues its bleak outlook on life to the bitter end. Alpha Dog doesn’t cheat us by blinking in the face of the abyss.

This is the dilemma of secularism. Because it has such a despairing worldview, it often tries to blunt the rusty, serrated edge of its steely worldview.

The characters in Alpha Dog exhibit a consistently amoral viewpoint. Zack is a likable kid. No one wants to kill him. But he’s a liability. It’s too risky to keep him alive. He might rat them out.

Due to common grace, secular friendship can be better in practice than in principle. (And due to sin, Christian friendship can be worse in practice than in principle.)

But secular friendship is very tenuous. In Alpha Dog, you can be friendly without being a friend. For genuine friendship involves a willingness to sacrifice your self-interest in the interests of a friend. In case of conflict, you put his welfare above your own.

The godless youth in Alpha Dog aren’t prepared to do good for others at the expense of their own good. And given their premised worldview, that’s very logical. There’s nothing to gain, and everything to lose–by doing the right thing. In a world without redemption, vice is often rewarded while virtue is often penalized. So why not be ruthless?

The hoodlums made a shortsighted, but momentous and irreversible mistake when they kidnapped Zach. And having made one fateful choice, that, in turn, commits them to a greater evil to cover their tracks–or so they hope. Once they make a wrong turn down a one-way street, there’s no going back. After that, everything falls into place–like flicking the first domino.

Traditionally, liberals blame crime on poverty and oppression. The “system” let them down. “Victims of tragic circumstances.”

However, some movies, like Alpha Dog, deal with the theme of yuppie juvenile delinquents. They are the product of permissive, indulgent, preoccupied parents who give their kids a credit card as a substitute for genuine parental involvement in their lives. Distracted, status-conscious parents who have morally rudderless children because the parents are morally rudderless.

Admittedly, that’s become something of a hackney theme. But it’s hackneyed because it’s true to life.

And it’s understandable that many film critics would resent a film like that, since it’s basically a film about them. In general, Hollywood actors, directors, and critics all exemplify the same lifestyle and worldview.

The characters in the film are just as venal and vacuous as the critics. Naturally they hate it. It’s too much like looking in the mirror without your make-up.

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