“This whole thing is about parenting,” explains the ironically named Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis). He is telling an off-screen questioner about his son Johnny (Emile Hirsch). Or, the questioner is trying to get some answers from Sonny, but not making much progress.
The credits come up as Eva Cassidy sings “Over the Rainbow,” and we see tender home-movie footage of sweet children playing at home, on the beach, at parties, a bar mitzvah. And then we see Johnny, a drug dealer always surrounded by his posse and their girlfriends, in a constant haze of pervasive anomie characterized by exhausted macho and empty sensation-seeking. They bump blindly through an endless series of joyless thrills — video games, rap music videos, insults and posturing, sex, drugs, drinking, and smoking, an R-rated version of the Pleasure Island where Pinocchio turned into a donkey. There are petty quarrels and petty protestations of loyalty, both involving outlandish posturing followed by interest fading as fast as whatever buzz they’re on. Two people owe Johnny money. First is Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), who is paying it off by performing menial tasks and enduring abuse, choking back his fury. Second is Jake (Ben Foster), hot-headed and with no patience for being told what to do.
The dispute escalates when Jake trashes Johnny’s house. Johnny, out with a couple of his friends looking for Jake, sees Jake’s 15-year old half-brother Zach (Anton Yelchin). At first they start to beat him up but then they take him, a human marker for his half-brother’s debt.
Hopped up on drugs, desperation, and gangsta fantasies, they tug Zach from one house to another in a kind of floating party. Zach is happy to go along with it. In some vague way, he thinks he is helping Jake. The pretty girls call him “Stolen Boy,” and he enjoys the attention and the drugs. It is thrilling to hang out with people who seem so tough and cool. And back home, his parents are waiting to yell at him about the bong they found in his room. “It’s a story to tell my grandchildren,” he says, turning down several chances to get away.
But he won’t have any grandchildren. And he won’t make it home to get in trouble over the bong. Johnny panics and offers call it even with Elvis if he will get rid of Zach for good. Elvis sees a chance to get out from under and stop being treated like less than a man.
With a feeling of terrible inevitability from the beginning, the story unfolds, day by day, identifying characters and passers-by as witnesses so we know that sometime in the future they will be swearing to tell the truth before they tell the story of what they saw. There are half a dozen “almost” moments as various people offer Zach a chance to escape, start to back out, or go along or ignore what was going on. There were so many reasons this should not have happened. These boys came from affluent communities. They did not grow up seeing drive-by killings or wearing gang colors. Except on rap videos.
Without any guidance from their parents, the line between the fantasy of the rap lyrics and the reality of taking a life disappears. Every adult in the movie is ineffectual, narcissistic, childish, or absent.
Writer/director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) says he was inspired to make this film because his daughter attended the same school as the real-life inspiration for Johnny Truelove, the gaudily named Jesse James Hollywood. He conveys the blankness and bleakness of this culture so well that it seems at times like just another rap video, more likely to inspire just another set of foolish, trigger-happy kids than to scare them straight. Hirsch, Timberlake, Milchan, Foster, and Hatosy all give excellent performances, despite the limited vocabulary
that requires most of what they do to be literally between the lines. But Willis and Sharon Stone as Zach’s mother do not fare well in the bleached-out tones of the cinematography. Stone stays at one shrill note except for her last scene, in a fat suit so distracting and bizarre that it obliterated her sensitive handling of the distraught mother’s grief and elicited laughs from the audience.
Hollywood, captured by the FBI in 2005 after a five-year search, was featured on “America’s Most Wanted.” His flashy name and comfortable background attracted a lot of interest from the press and the public. But it is not always easy to make a true crime story dramatic instead of sensational, and that is where this film falters. It is all sensation rather than insight.
The characters are all flash and emptiness, but so is the story. Yes, the parents are clueless, neglectful, or worse — a mother tells her distraught daughter she can’t talk because she is high, and Johnny’s drug business is overseen by his father. Yes, the guys got swept away in their own gangsta dreams and drug-addled grandiosity. But this movie has nothing more to tell us, and is more a high-style “America’s Most Wanted” re-enactment than a drama.
Ultimately, they were just dumb. And it seems solipsistic, superficial, and short-sighted to put so much energy into the story of this murder when so little attention is paid to murders of non-white, non-suburban kids. It’s not a problem that the movie does not try to answer the why of the murder but it is a serious failure that it never answers the why of its own purpose.
Parents should know that this film has extremely mature material, including constant profanity and bad language, drug use and drug dealing, smoking, drinking, fighting, and very explicit sexual references and situations, including group sex. A 15-year-old is abducted, given drugs, seduced, and murdered. There are profoundly dysfunctional families. Friends abuse each other with mock — and serious — insults and destructive pranks. There are disturbing interactions and there is an overall tone of amoral sensation-seeking that is unsettling.
Families who see this movie should talk about who could have stopped this crime and why they did not. Why does it begin with home movies? Do you agree with Sonny’s statement that the story is about parenting? Why did Zach cooperate with his abductors? Did Elvis and Frankie have different reasons for doing what Johnny told them? What were they?
Viewers who appreciate this film will also like River’s Edge, Wonderland, and The Lost Boys. For more information about the real-life murder of Zach Markowitz and the long search for the man called Johnny Truelove in this film, see this article.