This Dog won’t hunt, but he knows a few tricks

by Glen Baity

Kids these days. When they’re not doing drugs, they’re selling drugs. When they’re not selling drugs, they’re buying drugs. And when they’re not buying drugs, they’re stealing money. To buy drugs.

Or so it goes in Alpha Dog, an “inspired-by-actual-events” trip into the world of super-rich teenage deviants.

Lords of Dogtown’s Emile Hirsch plays Johnny Truelove, a budding drug lord who, despite being only a few years clear of puberty, considers himself equal parts Tony Soprano and Tony Montana. When Jake (Ben Foster), one of his speed-freak debtors, goes nuts and threatens to kill him, Johnny goes into hiding. On his way to a safe house, he runs into Jake’s 15-year-old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), who he kidnaps and holds hostage pending payment of Jake’s debt.

The crime turns out wholly unlike a typical abduction: Johnny’s numbskull crew doesn’t realize they’re supposed to make Zack’s life unpleasant, and it turns out the kid prefers hanging out with them over returning to his old life.

With their new friend in tow, the wild bunch keeps doing what they do best: partying, smoking weed, chugging wine coolers and imagining their already-privileged lives as an extended rap video.

As the search for Zack ramps up, however, it slowly dawns on Johnny that Zack, strictly speaking, is still the victim of a kidnapping, which could mean life in prison for pretty much everyone involved.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to discuss this film without mentioning crucial details from its final act, so be advised that the rest of this review will contain some spoilers.

I say the above because it’s the endgame that makes Alpha Dog a good, if not exceptional true crime story. Truelove’s solution to the Zack problem is to have his cronies drive the kid out to the desert, kill him and bury him gangland-style. Like nearly everything these soft young thugs do, it seems like a plan whose origins lie entirely in gangster movies.

Which is kind of the point – Alpha Dog acts as a modern-day Lord of the Flies, telling the story of a bunch of relatively small-time criminals who get in well over their heads absent any adult supervision.

Writer/Director Nick Cassavettes forecasts the botched plan using an interesting device: As new characters are introduced, their names flash on-screen, accompanied by the witness number they’ll eventually be assigned at the murder trial.

It’s a move that constantly reminds the viewer of Zack’s fate, no matter how happy he seems or how genuine the affection his new friends express toward him.

The latter point is demonstrated with surprising effectiveness through the performance of Justin Timberlake, who plays Frankie, Johnny’s older right-hand man. While Timberlake’s feature film debut is spotty – at times his reading of the character is flat as a pancake – he delivers big in some pivotal scenes with Zack as the two strike up a fast friendship.

It’s all the more poignant, then, when Frankie leads Zack to his death. Timberlake conveys a deep fear and confusion as to what his character is actually doing, and it’s a scene that goes right to the core of the film. None of these kids seem like truly evil people – stupid and fundamentally misguided, yes, but not evil – and for the most part, they appear as shocked as anyone at what actually comes to pass.

Ironically, it’s this aspect that makes Alpha Dog ultimately unsatisfying. Cassavettes does a fine job reconstructing the events, but his rendering of the characters leaves something to be desired. If you’re the kind of person who believes violent films, music and video games are enough to drive teenagers to murder, Alpha Dog is your movie.

Me, I don’t buy it. And in fairness, Cassavettes doesn’t strongly suggest this is the case. But neither does he offer another explanation to his audience. Alpha Dog’s title implies some sort of psychological struggle underlying the film’s events, but that struggle isn’t evident in the final product.

Part of the problem is Hirsch, whose Johnny Truelove is essentially a cipher. His anger, fear and supposed feelings of inadequacy aren’t really evident, though one gets the impression they must’ve played some role in the crime. In a cast that, on the whole, is reaching for something well beyond its grasp, Hirsch is the only one who doesn’t seem to be trying very hard, and he’s not yet the kind of actor who can pull off an effortlessly brilliant performance.

Still, Alpha Dog is a perfectly watchable film, despite some major pitfalls. Cassavettes doesn’t delve deeply into his characters, but the lurid details are more than enough to keep viewers glued to the screen. This dog doesn’t have much bite, but his bark is enough to get your attention.

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