"Alpha Dog" presents a world of bored, ambitionless teenagers who fill the void intheir lives with drugs and booze. Do they have any concept of life outside their clueless circle of friends, or the consequences of what they do? Not really. Mired in the monotony of their suburban bubble and neglected by their laissez-faire parents, they are left to guide themselves — in this case, down a precarious path to tragedy.
Why does nobody stop them? Why don’t they stop themselves? Those are the questions posed by director Nick Cassavetes, and there are no good answers.
Perhaps that is what makes "Alpha Dog" so difficult to watch. For all the drug-fueled revelry on screen, there is an underlying sense of impending disaster, as kids who should know better make decisions that will ruin their lives.
The story, of course, is ripped from the headlines, inspired by the infamous case of Jesse James Hollywood, a Santa Barbara drug dealer who allegedly ordered the murder of a 15-year-old boy. Here, the names have been changed, but the macabre details remain. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a Scarface wannabe who impulsively kidnaps a rival’s brother in hopes of recouping a $1,200 debt. When he learns that the crime carries a lifetime prison sentence, he decides to destroy the evidence.
There is an unsettling disconnect in Truelove, a sociopathic survival instinct. But the same cannot be said of his friends, whose complicity is as senseless as the murder that follows. Take Frankie (Justin Timberlake). For all his street-tough posturing, he’s not the malicious type, and his affection for Zach (Anton Yelchin), the "stolen kid" at the center of the drama, seems real. In one key scene, Frankie offers Zach a way out, but Zach doesn’t take it — his captors treat him like one of their own, and he enjoys being the honored guest at their raucous parties.
What 15-year-old wouldn’t? Liberated from the watchful eyes of his parents, Zach is living out his wildest fantasies, hanging with the big kids and meeting girls who treat him like a new toy.
Absent from all the merrymaking, though, is any sense of real joy. There is a menacing pall that hangs over "Alpha Dog," and for Zach and Frankie, the desperate escapism is merely a prelude to something far more sinister.
Like "Bully," director Larry
Clark’s unflinching study of strung-out teenagers who talk themselves into killing an abusive classmate, "Alpha Dog" is a wounding indictment of kids who make all the wrong choices, and adults who turn a blind eye.
There are strong performances all around, particularly by Timberlake, who brings out the necessary conflict in a sympathetic character who lacks the courage to do what’s right. In the end, Frankie sacrifices his humanity — in a world of aspiring gangstas, there’s no place for compassion — and one realizes, bleakly, that Zach’s is not the only life needlessly wasted.
Alpha Dog ***½
Starring Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Ben Foster, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone
Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes
Running time 2 hours, 2 minutes