Written & Directed by: Nick Cassavetes
Based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood—here called, with far less panache, Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch)—Alpha Dog is directed by Nick "Son of John" Cassavetes with a distracting flair that senselessly uses all sorts of gimmicks, like split-screen, to cover-up the film's thematic vacuity; the most egregious example is his inclusion of to-the-camera interviews with the actors in character, like he was Ingmar Bergman or some shit. It seems a poor attempt to justify the film's voyeuristic exploitation aesthetic, as everything else is far too exaggerated to pass for realistic, based on a true story or not, regardless of how many touches of verite you try to pad it with. Truelove, a high-wheeling, nineteen year old druglord, gets into some serious beef with one of his dealers, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster, laughably awful), that escalates out of control; when Mazursky takes a shit on his carpet and steals his phat TV, Truelove retaliates, on a whim, by kidnapping Mazursky's exceedingly likeable little brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). ("What's not to like?" a character later asks, "he's fifteen!") Truelove and his gang end up giving Zack the time of his life, getting him high, drunk and laid and giving him a little bit of the peer-validation that he can't get living with his overbearing mother (Sharon Stone, also awful), the kind of woman who happens to, for what it's worth, watch him while he sleeps.
Though a pointless orgy of sex, drugs, vulgarity and violence, there's admittedly something alluring about Cassavetes' stylized vision of contemporary teenage debauchery, and it's convincing why Zack would stick around despite being given several opportunities to split; it's fun! But without Yelchin's performance as an overmothered, underfathered (Jewish stereotypes?), naive and curious adolescent keeping it together (and, to a lesser extent, Justin Timberlake's enthusiastic display of his impressive range), Alpha Dog would be conspicuously revealed as the meaningless claptrap that it is, despite its aspirations to disingenuously claim a weightier moral relevance. Bruce Willis, in a small role as Truelove's father, blatantly lays out the supposed theme—the importance of good parenting—in the film's opening sequence, and examples of bad parenting, mostly in the form of leniency and indifference, do largely occupy the film's background. Yet the kids in the film are, for the most part, (ambiguously) likeable, played with undeniable charm at least, and no amount of speechifying from Willis and his flustered character is going to change that. Yeah, kids need discipline and strong father figures, I guess, but what they probably don't need are more romanticizations of a pernicious modus vivendi like Alpha Dog. (Though, as Nathan Rabin recently wrote, "if I was a 16-year-old who'd seen Alpha Dog [and other similar films], I'd probably feel like the whole teenaged world was one giant omni-sexual drugged-up orgy I hadn't been invited to.") It isn't parents, anyway, who are likely to see the film, whose major claim to fame is that it's sexy-returner Justin Timberlake's big breakthrough. Though Cassavetes' film is ultimately tragic, considering the co-opting of Scarface as a celebration of gangstahood makes me think Alpha Dog will be largely misunderstood. (I'm not saying that it's irresponsible in that regard, only that Cassavetes shouldn't pretend he's doing the world a favor by having made the film.)
Despite the increasing inevitability of the film's conclusion, and already knowing the how it all ends from a familiarity with the actual story, Cassavetes, to his credit, is able to establish a legitimately suspenseful atmosphere as, like autumn leaves, the film slowly sheds its formal pretensions to build to a shattering climax, an acting triumph and reason enough alone to see the film; unfortunately, save for a brief cameo from Lukas Haas, the next thirty minutes are worthless, particularly as Yelchin and Timberlake, Alpha Dog's greatest assets, effectively disappear from the film. Ostensibly, Cassavetes' piece of teenxploitation is a study of a powerful figure's fall from grace, an illustration of how hubris inevitably leads to comeuppance—in the film's first scene, Truelove boasts that his "dick's so big it's got a knee," but by the end he can't even a muster an erection, to his girlfriend's dismay. ("What are we gonna do?" she angrily asks, "Talk?") The alpha dog's been emasculated, and childhood excess has been reigned in by the comforting forces of law and order. As such, though, it's not very effective; however, as a study of a character, Zack, who learns the dangerous consequences of a sex, drugs and kidnapping lifestyle, it's far more successful, thanks only to the acting strength of Anton Yelchin, who should be watched closely from now on. He's really fucking talented, yo.