Universal // 2006 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // May 14th, 2007
How did a crime with so many witnesses go so far?
Writer/director Nick Cassavetes, son of famed filmmaker John Cassavetes, makes the unconventional choice of following up his sentimental romance The Notebook with a gritty crime drama, Alpha Dog.
Based on a true story, Alpha Dog is a cautionary tale about the dangers of drugs and negligent parenting. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, The Girl Next Door) is a successful drug dealer in California's Inland Empire. When his deal with local speed freak Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster, Six Feet Under) goes sour, Johnny figures Jakes owes him $1,200; Jake disagrees. As often seems to happen in drug disputes, the argument becomes violent and intractable. In an attempt to facilitate payment, Johnny and his flunkies, including his heavily tattooed friend Frankie (Justin Timberlake, Edison Force), kidnap Jake's innocent 15-year-old brother Zach (Anton Yelchin, House of D) and hold him for ransom.
Surprisingly, Zach doesn't much mind being held hostage; his captors let him drink alcohol, smoke reefer, and party with some older ladies. But of course, Zach's family is in a frenzy, and they quickly alert the authorities, who instantly suspect Johnny. Feeling the heat, Johnny begins panicking and contemplates extreme measures to hide evidence of his kidnapping. I won't give away the ending, but because this movie is based on the details of a true crime, you can imagine that it doesn't end well for most of those involved.
Alpha Dog bears a striking similarity to Larry Clark's brilliant 2001 movie Bully. Both films were stylistic depictions of oversexed, disaffected youth that are driven to violence through drugs and mind-numbing stupidity. Both films seem vaguely exploitative and run the risk of glorifying the lifestyle and behavior they decry, but both also justify their frank depictions by being based on true stories. However, Bully has the distinct advantage of being the first one made. As such, the specter of Bully was almost impossible for me to ignore throughout Alpha Dog.
This isn't to say that Alpha Dog doesn't have its own unique attributes. For one thing, it's got a much bigger cast, a motley crew of young actors, nearly all of whom deliver surprisingly good performances. Of course, most scrutiny will be on pretty-boy music superstar Timberlake, but he is as strong as any of the professional actors in this film. He plays the rakish Frankie with equal parts charm, violence, and vulnerability, a combination that no one else in Alpha Dog even attempts. I know none of his films have yet been commercial successes, but his work here clearly shows that he has a future in movies, that is if he has now satisfactorily finished bringing sexy back. The rest of Alpha Dog's cast is almost equally intriguing. Whenever I see the diminutive Emile Hirsch, I think of the nondescript teenager he played in The Girl Next Door; I would never have expected him to pull off a sociopathic drug dealer. However, with great assistance with some large, menacing mutton chops, Hirsch proves up for the challenge. Also, Ben Foster, an actor whose performances I've always found somehow awkward, is almost unrecognizable as a young neo-Nazi, telemarketing drug addict. At times his acting is a little too manic, but it's still interesting to see an actor so fully embody a role.
Special credit should also go to the entire cast, because most of the characters spend the majority of the movie under the influence of narcotics. One of the hardest things to do in drama is accurately portray a group of people hanging out and having a good time. In a film with as much camaraderie as this, there's a lot of fake laughing and awkward high fives in response to humor that isn't very funny. While there are a couple wince-inducing moments, overall the cast does a fairly decent job recreating the in-group mannerisms of a bunch of fun-loving wastoids -- no small task.
Still, despite all of this, the humanity that was present in Bully is somehow absent in Alpha Dog. Most likely it's due to the large amount of time (at nearly two hours, the movie runs a little long) the film dedicates to hedonistic partying. Several scenes seem to have little purpose but to depict young men living in a world full of limitless drugs, alcohol, and beautiful, nubile women; a lot of these scenes play like outtakes from episodes of Entourage. Of course there are casualties of this hard-partying lifestyle; most prominent is the deeply unhinged Jake, but throughout the film he seems apart from the lifestyle, not endemic of it. In fact, if it weren't for a sudden tragic turn at the end of the movie, the message might have been how great it is to be young and high in California (which, incidentally, seems to be Entourage's message). Of course, the audience will likely experience some voyeuristic and vicarious pleasure throughout, but unlike Entourage the tone is inconsistent and ultimately provides a slightly unsatisfying emotional payoff.
Alpha Dog ends up being an entertaining, if somewhat underwhelming, movie. Perhaps I would have far more enjoyed it if Larry Clark had never made Bully. But since he did, this film can't help but pale in comparison.
I could understand Universal's lackluster DVD presentation of Alpha Dog if the movie was a big hit. If Alpha Dog had legions of fans a second DVD release -- a release with far more substantial bonus features -- would make sense. However, I don't imagine this movie has enough admirers who are going to double-dip on this one. So the negligible extras -- a mediocre making-of and a useless witness timeline -- are close to maddening. Anyone interested in Alpha Dog would be curious about the real-life crime it was based on -- so why almost no information about that? Why not get Nick Cassavetes -- who wrote the screenplay and must have done plenty of research -- to do a commentary track discussing the artistic liberties he took in adapting the story to screen? Additionally, the film's colors are occasionally murky, especially in some of the nighttime scenes. The only saving grace is the soundtrack, which showcases some fantastic contemporary hip-hop.
I remember sitting in the theater for the epilogue of Bully, when the lengthy prison (and death) sentences of all who had been involved in the murder are revealed. I sat in my seat throughout the credits, stuck with a profound sense of loss. There is a similar epilogue at the end of Alpha Dog but, instead of reflecting on all those wasted lives, I was thinking about what I would be having for dinner.
The jury is deadlocked on this one, so I'm releasing Alpha Dog, but imploring those in the gallery not to miss its superior predecessor.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "A Cautionary Tale": The Making of Alpha Dog
* Witness Timeline
* Official site