2007Director: Nick Cassavetes
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake
hat’s a little murder between friends? Not much at all, if the shaky coalition of drug-dealing punks at the heart of Alpha Dog is any indication. As imagined by writer-director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook), these teens, tucked away in high-end Los Angeles, represent the epitome of fractured youth in America, their bigotry matched only by their fierce sense of self-anointed power.
The kids are in the drug business, beckoned by the father of ringleader Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, who plays the role with a month’s growth and a paralyzing physical insecurity), and they demand respect. When a junkie (Ben Foster) costs Johnny some cash and then refuses to show due reverence, Johnny’s half-baked clan decides to take his kid brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) hostage, a “joke” that evolves into a major scandal.
This routine plot has a twist: the events actually took place a few years back. You know Johnny Truelove as Jesse James Hollywood, who currently awaits trial in California as the youngest man to make the FBI’s most-wanted list. Hardly the first film to document real-life crime while its perpetrators face its consequences, Alpha Dog portrays the events (which occurred in 2000) with inexplicable and at times reckless abandon.
Every time new characters are introduced, witness numbers are flashed on-screen and each new setting is stamped with the date and time of day. The film constructs its own version of the events, a near-voyeuristic documentation of the crime’s evolution. That Cassavetes actually believed his film had the sincerity—much less the authority—to make an effective docudrama on the infamous case is the movie’s biggest creative embarrassment. That’s a shame, because much of Alpha Dog is difficult to set aside.
The film makes some acute observations about the clan’s descent into chaos. Cassavetes constructs several effective sequences showing how the boy is at first a welcome nuisance. A fresh-faced youth, he sensibly fits in with his captors as they spend their afternoons getting stoned while their parents are at work. It’s a familiar but disquieting portrait, not quite fleshed-out enough to work as social commentary but solid enough to provide a sense of the characters’ motivations.
A central force in the surprising emotional complexity is the performance of Justin Timberlake, who brings a carefree sensitivity to the role of Frankie, the film’s wayward moral compass. He gives Zack a place to sleep and occupies him with video games and weed, eventually starting to like the kid. Timberlake, whose supporting role earned the film more press than the lawsuits that threatened to shut it down, has publicly refused acting classes (he relied, straight-faced, on experience from The Mickey Mouse Club), but he’s the only actor in the film’s expansive ensemble who strikes a believable balance between drug-induced theatrics and a casual sense of guilt. Frankie’s inaction is painful, but his moral grappling is clear in Timberlake’s performance.
Alpha Dog also suggests the possibility that the most intensely berated member of the group, Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), becomes a chief perpetrator of the crime because of a latent crush on Johnny. This risky plot point could have been a manifestation of the characters’ homophobia, but, through a series of subtle and well-executed scenes, contributes to the film’s quiet devastation. Elvis’ final act—one of unconscionable evil—is a confirmation of both his masculinity and his bond with Johnny, another tragedy to add to the film’s brewing stockpile.
Alpha Dog is not the trivial teen-murder show the American marketing suggests, intelligently investigating the young men’s individual moral crises rather than focusing singularly on their actions. However, the filmmaking is so irrevocably manhandled that nothing elevates the movie above the level of an uncomfortable cultural specimen. These failures are especially disappointing in a movie that, at its best, provides a troubling snapshot of teen dispassion and disregard.
Alpha Dog is currently playing in wide release.