Alpha Dog (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It goes without saying that it's dangerous for a lamb to spend time in the den of wolves, but when that lamb lingers longer than is necessary, the result is guaranteed. Alpha Dog, the 2006 Sundance Closing Night film whose resemblance to a real-life case engendered a lawsuit, is about such a situation. It illustrates that not all master criminals are masterminds and that not all "nerds gone wild" stories have happy endings. Director Nick Cassavetes should be commended for the unflinching manner in which he tells the story - it packs a punch, although it lingers too long to be truly unsettling. There's an art to figuring out when to end a movie and, at least on this occasion, it eludes the filmmakers.

Alpha Dog transpires in the late 1990s and focuses on drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and his posse, which includes jokester Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake) and gofer Elvis Schmidt (Shaun Hatosy). When Johnny has a falling-out with one of his customers, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), who owes him money, all hell breaks loose. The escalating conflict results in a prisoner being taken: Jake's na?ve younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), who's the lamb to Johnny's wolves. Although Zack is initially kidnapped, he adapts to his captivity, playing video games with members of Johnny's crew, drinking and doing dope, and flirting with girls. It's paradise for this sheltered lad, and he doesn't want to go back to being Mommy and Daddy's Perfect Boy. However, life lessons for Zack aren't foremost on Johnny's mind. He's trying to figure out the best way to stay out of prison or end up in a body bag, and that may require Zack to be in a position where he can never testify.

It's interesting to watch a movie in which the criminals are incompetent wimps. Most of the time, bad guys in films like this are equal parts geniuses and thugs. Johnny plays at being a sophisticated badass, but when it comes down to it, he's a fraud. He's not smart and he's intimidated by guns. There are several times when he has a chance to pull the trigger but doesn't - it isn't a case of him using restraint; he's plain scared. Johnny's playing the role of the gangster until one of many unintelligent decisions puts him in a situation in which the real-world consequences are severe. Suddenly, the games are over.

Most of the characters are reprehensible - not the kinds of people the average viewer would feel comfortable spending two hours alongside. Then there's Zack. He's a good kid whose situation is not of his own making. He happens to have a nutso brother and he pays the price for the misfortune of having the same father as Jake. Zack's story unfolds in a way that recalls Almost Famous - the innocent thrown into a world of depravity where he finds temporary bliss. In Almost Famous, the Magical Mystery Tour eventually ends with a cold does of reality; that reality couldn't be any colder than the one in Alpha Dog's final act.

The movie bypasses the perfect ending point - a stirring mock-interview with Sharon Stone as Zack's mother - in order to spend 15 extra minutes with Johnny and his cohorts. Although this part of the movie offers the most explicit nudity in the film (from a sexy Olivia Wilde), it feels extraneous and tacked-on. While Alpha Dog may start out being about Johnny, he quickly becomes secondary to Zack and Zack's developing friendship with Frankie, who has been named as the kid's "handler."

As Zack, Anton Yelchin develops a sweet, baby-faced character in which bookworms everywhere will recognize a kindred spirit. Zack is every high school student who spent more time studying than socializing. He's the Catholic schoolgirl who goes wild when the restraints are removed. It's an effective performance, right to the end. Also strong, perhaps surprisingly, is Justin Timberlake as Frankie. It doesn't take long for the singer to shed his reputation and do some real acting. Frankie is a tragic figure - a boy who's in way over his head and ends up frozen in a state of moral paralysis because he fails to see the one clear way out of what he believes to be an inescapable trap. Ben Foster's Jake has it cranked up to "11"; he's channeling Dennis Hopper on speed. Emile Hirsch is adequate as Johnny, but it's neither a memorable nor a compelling portrayal. A little star power is provided by Bruce Willis in a small role as Johnny's dad and an equally underexposed Sharon Stone as Zack's mom. (One of those rare occasions when "underexposed" and "Sharon Stone" can rightfully be used in the same sentence.)

Cassavetes approaches the subject matter with a clear eye and a gallows sense of humor. Most of Alpha Dog's jokes are dark, darker, and darkest. The film is designed to make viewers feel uncomfortable and it punctuates that success with a gut-punch, even though we know what's coming. Cassavetes isn't interested in generating suspense; this is more of a study of human nature. The picture he paints isn't pretty but, by all accounts, it's accurate at least insofar as generalities are concerned. Alpha Dog isn't a happy movie, but it's dramatically solid and the impressions it leaves will not be easily shaken.

Alpha Dog (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2007-01-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1