Alpha Dog and Half Nelson are two tales of the stoner generation, told with cogency and lucidity. In the first film a gang of teenagers in Los Angeles, high on MTV and drugs, kidnap a boy for a prank and are soon agonising over his survival or disposal, as they gaze down the gun-barrel of an unforgiving law system. In Half Nelson a substance-abusing schoolteacher (Ryan Gosling) is in need of the gift of redemption. Or is he, since he teaches better than most of the squeaky-clean colleagues whose worst vice is a nicotine patch?
Both movies freshen up old subgenres: respectively the youth melodrama (school of Rebel Without a Cause) and the classroom tale (Blackboard Jungle; To Sir, With Love). Alpha Dog, written and directed by Nick Cassavetes, son of John, behaves like a generation-skipping homage to Nicholas Ray. Ray, who directed Rebel, was a studio-system forebear of Cassavetes Senior, marketing a kindred brand of feral psychodrama but in rich colours and wide screens. He would surely have loved Alpha Dog’s neurotic, linear, progressively bold urgency.
Thinly fictionalising the true story of drug-dealer Jesse James Hollywood, a young offender on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list currently awaiting trial in the US, Nick Cassavetes begins a touch overanxiously. Portentous datelines and split screens schematise the action as “Johnny Truelove” (Emile Hirsch) leads the putsch that takes hostage a young drug debtor (Ben Foster), who is then passed from one baby-sitter in the gang circle to another. The circle includes a deftly cast Justin Timberlake, flexing a tattooed torso and a flickering nimbus of hero-worship as Frankie, among the dimmer bulbs of the set.
The film’s outer circle includes Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis, in higher-watt roles as dismayed or harrowed parents. In fact this movie, with its intensifying sense of drama and its shrewd ability to combine taut plot
discomforts with a top-dollar cast and production values, proves that Nick Cassavetes can make “retro” seem radical. (Something he failed to do in his recent The Notebook, an old-fashioned weepie that seemed like a career goodbye letter.)
The last act of Alpha Dog cranks up the expressionist voltage with shapeshifting scenery, strong cutting and a brilliantly eerie, almost sci-fi-like showdown in the valley of the windmills near Palm Springs. Here life, death, horror and a numbing, numinous nihilism glow in the twilight, like last pulses of sacred awe in a world purged of God and goodness.
Half Nelson, a first feature by Ryan Fleck, is an energy-saving bulb by comparison. It is dimmer and duller, but it solicits our approval for its greater planetary enlightenment. There are no guest stars here, just emergent mini-star Ryan Gosling, subtly inhabiting his role as a junior high school teacher with a heroin habit. There is no marquee melodrama here, either, just a street-level realism that busks between wry satire – classroom scenes in which the hero Dan presents to glassy-eyed 13-year-olds his cerebral take on history (“the study of change over time”) – and a redemptive buddy story.
Dan is befriended by a self-possessed black pupil (Shareeka Epps), who knows his secret vice but offers comradeship rather than blackmail. As an apprentice drug-runner she understands, without seeking to exploit, his world of inner and outer dependence. There is no sentimentality here, no hint that Dan will kick his habit. There are a few hints that it makes him a better teacher, goofing off brightly in class in the knowledge that entertained pupils are better than comatose ones.
If only Fleck had the same sense of showmanship. His artistic integrity grinds on, as if determined to show he is milling this movie by hand and will take as long as he wants to turn the kernels of thought into something consumable. Dullness isn’t an imprimatur of art. Maybe, after co-writing the script with the scenarist Anna Boden, Fleck should have passed it to Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne to direct.
In Reign Over Me, written and directed by Mike Bender, Adam Sandler has the role of his whole life. Or does he just put his whole life into it? None of us thought Sandler could act like this, or even look like this. He resembles a doolally Bob Dylan: his draggly, greying curls and shuffle-shouldered gait go with the familiar nasal delivery to create a credible, even beguiling hero. Robbed of his wife and family by a well-known national tragedy, he is deep in anomie, denial and post-traumatic stress. His pad is a hovel. Life outside is nocturnal scooter trips to his consciousness-numbing sideline as a nightclub drummer.
With a worse film or actor, he would be Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man mixed with Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? But Sandler rises above potential mawkishness. He climbs on the shoulders of his co-stars Don Cheadle (interventionist dentist pal), Liv Tyler (psychotherapist) and Saffron Burrows (public-service nymphomaniac), as if to say: “Look how much harder I am working at my role than they.” And he is. A rambling thought process is visible in every tic of face and body language. The inevitable late scene of tearful self-catharsis is done with hard focus, not soft generality. The integrity of response in this performance could be an example to better-known actors. Somewhere there is an Oscar waiting with Sandler’s name on it.
Southern gothic comes no more gothic than in The Reaping, though it has come a lot more Southern. The British actor David Morrissey’s stab at a Louisiana twang is as dismaying as his last Hollywood appearance in Basic Instinct 2. He and minister-turned-professor Hilary Swank encounter the plagues of Egypt in the bayous. Lots of screaming; lots of thunderstorms; lots of filmgoers wanting to call back the previous reel to work out what is happening in the new one. Or just to give up and catch a re-run of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.