Alpha Dog Review
Based on a bizarre but true kidnapping case that made headlines in California back in 2000, Alpha Dog is a crime drama set among the young, rich, hard-partying white trash of suburban Los Angeles. As such, it doesn't do anything we haven't seen before - it's just a slicked-up, bigger-budget Larry Clark film: a West Coast variation on Bully - but for what it is, it's pretty well done and this kind of true crime story has an undeniable appeal.
The alpha dog of the title is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), who's closely based on Jesse James Hollywood. He's the spoiled, twenty-year-old son of gangster Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis) and he's the biggest dope supplier in the San Fernando Valley. Handsome, wealthy and dangerous, Johnny is surrounded by a court of friends and hangers-on, including the perpetually stoned Frank (Justin Timberlake) and the fawning Elvis (Shawn Hatosy).
Drug dealers tend to make friends more easily than most people but the same is true of enemies. Johnny finds an especially vindictive enemy in Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a speed addict who owes him money. When Johnny humiliates him in public, Jake retaliates by trashing his house. Johnny can't afford to be seen to back down so he goes looking for Jake and, when he can't find him, he decides on impulse to snatch his 15-year-old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin).
The kid is initially frightened but, left in the custody of the affable, easy-going Frank, he soon relaxes and even starts to enjoy himself. Frank gives the kid beer and dope, introduces him to hot girls and takes him out partying with his friends. There doesn't seem to be any danger and Zack has been so miserable at home (Sharon Stone plays his suffocating mother) that his kidnapping feels more like a much-needed vacation. However, Zack's distraught parents have called the cops and it slowly begins to dawn on the dopehead kidnappers that this is not just a lark - they're committing a felony that carries a sentence of life imprisonment.
This story is so jaw-droppingly unbelievable, it could only be true and writer-director Nick Cassavetes has done a good job of telling it. Wisely, he establishes a handful of sympathetic characters in an otherwise scummy milieu - Zack of course but also the morally conflicted Frank and his indignant friend Susan (Dominique Swain). The scene in which she tries to explain to her giggling, doped-out friends exactly what they've done is one of the film's most memorable. Like many scenes in Alpha Dog, it carries a real ring of truth.
As the situation escalates, Alpha Dog builds up a fair amount of tension, although some of this is defused by Cassavetes' misguided attempt to go for a semi-documentary feel by interspersing the drama with talking heads and by using onscreen captions along the lines of "Witness #13".
Another irritation: the frequent, unsubtle hinting that the parents are to blame for it all. Most of the adults in the film are portrayed as being as selfish and depraved as their children. However, Zack and Jake's more traditional, conservative mother and father are treated as equally culpable, which suggests there's no pleasing Cassavetes. Besides, these "kids" are simply too old to palm their shortcomings off on mummy and daddy.
The unusual amount of sex and swearing (by today's standards) may bother some viewers and at times the sleaze seems gratuitous and applied self-consciously. As with Larry Clark's Bully, buried underneath all the F-words, the drug taking and the meaningless sex is a simple morality play and the moral is merely that crime doesn't pay. Still, while Alpha Dog lacks the raw power of Bully, it's an effective drama in its own right.
This is a very well-acted film, with impressive work from Emile Hirsch, Anton Yelchin, Shawn Hatosy, Ben Foster, Dominique Swain and, yes folks, Justin Timberlake. The singer acquits himself quite admirably in a demanding role. Older stars Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Alex Kingston and Harry Dean Stanton are well used for the most part. Cassavetes is obviously a good actor's director. However, the make-up department does a spectacular job of sabotaging one of the stars with what must be the most unconvincing fat suit ever seen on film. I'll leave you to discover which one.