ALPHA DOG (Nick Cassavetes, 2006)
A 1999 abduction and murder case is the basis for the ripped from the headlines ALPHA DOG. Smalltime drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and his pals, including a heavily tattooed Justin Timberlake as Frankie Ballenbacher, are up to no good in their southern California neighborhood, but Johnny crosses the line when trying to squeeze money out of someone who owes him. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a Jewish neo-Nazi, can't pay up. On the spur of the moment Johnny gets the idea to take Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) hostage as a means of persuasion.
Johnny's gang treats Zack like a new member, and he isn't in any rush to get home. Before Zack was taken his parents confronted him about a bong they found in his room. Plus, his kidnapped status makes him the hit of the roving parties that Johnny's gang attends. It's as though no one realizes the consequences of the abduction. Zack can't just pop back in at home to clear up everything. As Johnny comes to understand what's at stake, the likelihood that Zack will be returned alive diminishes.
Like other youth gone wild films, ALPHA DOG tries to gain its immediacy by purporting to tell the gritty truth about teens today. Although the film dramatizes a specific true life case, it plays as a larger statement about amoral adolescents and their clueless, self-absorbed parents. The problem with such an endeavor, and with this film specifically, comes when it isn't grounded in any sort of reality for the average moviegoer to comprehend.
ALPHA DOG thrusts us into a world where the adults are ineffectual, if they're even around at all, and the kids roam the ranch house complexes like a pack of wolves. It's a familiar scenario in films but one that I'm guessing most audience members have never experienced firsthand. The story is coming from the streets, so it has to be honest, right? Explaining that the film is based on real characters and events doesn't release director Nick Cassavetes from convincing us that this really happened. As it stands, ALPHA DOG plays out like a hysterical vision of corrupted youth in which hip hop music and tattoos are to blame.
ALPHA DOG'S characters adopt poses that they've seen on television and in the movies, and the same goes for the young cast hamming it up as if they watched their SCARFACE DVDs too many times in preparation. Hirsch broods and puts on a menacing look occasionally, but he doesn't have enough screen time to explain why we should consider him the vilest of this rotten bunch. Timberlake acquits himself, in part because he plays the one character with any conception of the wrongness of their actions. Most of the performances are pitched over the top, particularly a twitchy Foster. When Jake busts out some wicked martial arts moves, it's hard not to break into laughter. That goes doubly for when Sharon Stone, playing Zack's mother Olivia, gives a weepy interview in a fat suit.
Stifling that response happens all too often in ALPHA DOG, a film that is otherwise dry, unengaged, and conflicted. If this weren't a true story made with the intention of nailing Johnny Truelove for his crimes, it would be freer to enjoy the youthful debauchery that it likes but resists for the sake of the message.