Following in the footsteps of Mean Creek and Bully, writer/director Nick Cassavetes delivers Alpha Dog, an effectively grueling exposé about a disturbed group of young adults getting stoned, laid and arrested in Southern California. The film, hard to stomach and equally as hard to look away from, is a startling, hypnotizing ride full of surprises.
Case in point: Eva Cassidy’s haunting rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” plays during the opening credits, overlaying video footage of happy young kids playing on a field. In the next scene, we are yanked away from that and dropped into a world of grime, sleaze and drug lords. Say goodbye to magical red slippers and yellow brick roads; there’s none of that here.
Alpha Dog is inspired by the true story of Jesse James Hollywood (fictionalized as Johnny Truelove and played by Emile Hirsch) who, as luck would have it, was recently captured after five years on the FBI’s most wanted list. The attorneys wanted to delay the film from being released until the trial was complete, but it looks like they were overruled.
The story is about a crazed Jewish skinhead (Ben Foster) who owes Truelove, the richest drug dealer in town, a debt of $1,200. When he can’t pay it, Johnny's gang retaliates by snatching up his innocent 15-year-old half brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), wandering around town after a fight with his overprotective mom (Sharon Stone), and decide to hold him hostage for a while until they get paid.
It’s a poorly conceived plan, clearly, but that’s what happens when people’s brain cells are rotted away by too many drugs and then they get the wicked notion that they’re badass criminals. The two just don’t mix. Most of the movie is spent getting to know these loudmouth, trash-talking characters who try to be tough but come off as incompetent and kind of wussy. They spend a lot of time partying and hanging out with their new imprisoned buddy, making the whole thing seem more like a Club Med vacation than a kidnapping. But along the way, the laughter stops. And intensity comes out swinging.
Unlike the atrocious Chumscrubber, which also deals with a juvenile ransom plot gone awry, Alpha Dog is an immensely watchable film that’s as repugnant as it is entertaining. It suffers from a few too many characters and mock interviews (including a throwaway role by Bruce Willis), but there are enough twists and solid performances to compensate. Timberlake is the standout here, having a real chance to show his acting chops; he does so by running away with the movie and earning retribution for the straight-to-video disaster of Edison Force.
Cassavetes (writer of Blow, director of The Notebook) has created a film that many people will hate, because it sucks you in and then spits you out without remorse. The music video atmosphere mixed with heavy moral dilemmas will prove too tough for many to handle (as the poor weekend box office tallies indicate), but Alpha Dog succeeds by having a bite that exceeds its bark. Just be prepared to crave a shower, or three, after this one.