Eric D. Snider

Alpha Dog

"Alpha Dog" is in some ways a revelatory film. It was written and directed by Nick Cassavetes, whose previous output ("John Q" and "The Notebook," particularly) has been proficient but strictly by-the-numbers. Furthermore, it features Justin Timberlake in a leading dramatic role. This thing has "mediocrity" written all over it.

Yet here it is, a gritty urban crime drama involving teenagers, guns, drugs and sex, all sharply acted, well-directed and astutely put together, with Timberlake's performance as one of its greatest attributes. What happened to Cassavetes and Timberlake to make them go this direction, I don't know, but I'm glad they did. (All due respect to fans of "The Notebook.")

The film is a fictionalized account of a true story, set in Claremont, Calif., in 1999. The characters are kids with no ethics, no roots and no direction. To the extent that they have parents, the parents are ineffectual. And so their leader is another kid, a teenage drug lord -- he can't be more than 17 -- named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch). Johnny has a "Scarface" poster on his wall, and he emulates that character in his business decisions.

His fellow teens, meanwhile, emulate the gangsters they see in rap videos. They're abusive, sexist kids who cruise from one drug-fueled party to another, always ready to follow orders from Johnny. One boy (Shawn Hatosy) is cleaning Johnny's garage just because he was told to.

Meanwhile, we meet Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a profoundly unstable meth-head who owes Johnny a chunk of cash that he can't seem to come up with at the moment. His father (David Thornton) and spiteful stepmother (Sharon Stone) won't give it to him, and his 15-year-old half-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) -- who looks up to Jake like a demigod -- doesn't have it. This debt infuriates Johnny, and a feud ensues. Unable to find Jake, Johnny's guys, led by a thug named Frankie (Timberlake), do the next best thing: They snatch young Zack up off the street and more or less hold him prisoner.

It's an odd sort of kidnapping, though. They have no reason to hurt him, just hang onto him until Jake comes through with the money. Problem is, Jake is MIA, leaving Frankie with this hostage he doesn't really want. Johnny doesn't want him either, so Frankie is stuck with him.

Zack, for his part, a naive and inexperienced lad, is having a great time going from party to party, being hit on by girls and offered drinks. He becomes friends with Frankie and with Frankie's associate Keith (Chris Marquette). Frankie takes care of him, brings him along to his dad's house in Palm Springs, where there's a swimming pool and a place to sleep. There's a certain tenderness in the almost brotherly bond that develops between them. But Zack eventually becomes a liability rather than an asset as the spur-of-the-moment kidnapping drags on for days with no resolution in sight.

Timberlake's performance as Frankie is a standout, emotionally complex and believably street-tough. Anton Yelchin, who starred in David Duchovny's little-seen "House of D," is given plenty to chew on as Zack, too, and his laudable performance suggests he may be one to watch.

It's good to see two other interesting young actors here, too: Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster as the feuding juvenile delinquents. Hirsch ("The Girl Next Door," "Lords of Dogtown"), whose baby face suggests vulnerability even when Johnny claims to be capable of handling every situation, is the opposite of Foster (TV's "Six Feet Under"), who plays Jake as a larger-than-life lunatic. When Jake takes a dump on Johnny's living room carpet as an act of defiance, I have no problem believing it's something he would do.

Southern California is depicted not as a glamorous wonderland but as a barren wasteland, a desert of stucco-coated houses and ugly chain-link fences. (That's more or less accurate, by the way.) Cassavetes shoots most of it with hand-held cameras in a documentary style, even framing the story with realistic-looking interviews with some of the figures (including Bruce Willis as Johnny's uncooperative father). It's a nightmare of a place, this SoCal, populated by vulgar kids who have seen plenty of crimes committed in movies but have no idea how to perpetrate one themselves.

To some extent, that may be true of Cassavetes, too. His depiction of all this squalor and depravity is vivid, but it doesn't offer much insight into WHY the kids do what they do, and he drags the resolution out way too long. Still, the fact that the director of "The Notebook" had something this jarringly stone-faced and unflinching inside of him is intriguing. It's a solid, tragic film about a group of kids whose fate was sealed long before we ever met them.

Grade: B

Rated R, pervasive harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, some nudity, some strong violence

2 hrs., 2 min.

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This item has 22 comments

  1. me says:

    i think you missed some things. hatosy owes money to johnny, just like foster. the crap of this film is that it stylizes this lifestyle, and the same kids that look up to scarface will look up to this film... there're many paralells between the two. anyway, it sucked i can't believe you gave it a B... how bout a D+?

  2. David Manning says:

    No matter how well thought-out or reasonable your argument is (it isn't), people will never take you seriously if you type like that.

  3. MARK VITO says:

    IF YOU REALLY WANT TO SEE A FILM THAT CAPTURES THE WORLD OF "TEENS GONE BAD" WATCH LARRY CLARK'S "BULLY" THAT MOVIE IS WHAT IT IS REALLY LIKE FOR A TEEN LIVING IN A WORLD OF DEPREVITY

  4. Everyday says:

    Hmmmm...there's a bit of a disconnect here, and it may be just from ignorance of Southern California or of the director's use of creative license. But if this movie is supposedly set in Claremont, Ca, one would not describe the town as a desert of stucco-coated houses and ugly chain-link fences. You'd be hard pressed to find chain-link in Claremont. (The city doesn't even allow fast food restuarants within its borders.) It's one of the nicer cities around, a sweet little college town home to one of the more prestigious private colleges in the western U.S. Hardly a place of squalor. But I'm sure this is where the director took the facts and realized that they didn't exactly mesh with the vision he wanted on screen. The real life crime may have taken place in Claremont; I'm willing to bet the movie wasn't shot there.

  5. Rob D says:

    Eric got this review right. I really liked this movie. The acting was great and it was an emotional ride. Many critics are bashing it- I really don't know why.

  6. Missy says:

    Did you actually completely disregard commenting on Sharon Stone's beyond-laughable latex-makeup job at the end?!

    The middle of this movie is watchable, the beginning and much of the ending were so bad it made me cringe.

  7. D says:

    no "latex-makeup job" here. That was really susan markowitz, the mother of the real victim, Nick Markowitz

  8. Eric D. Snider says:

    I suppose it's possible (though unlikely) that Susan Markowitz could have made a cameo somewhere, but the latex-makeup job at the end is most assuredly Sharon Stone.

  9. Nate Berrett says:

    I haven't seen the film and likely won't. That being said, I find it hard to believe that Justin Timberlake could ever pull off being a tough character. Maybe it's because he was in a boy band that disqualifies him from toughness forever in my mind. I also grew up in Utah during the 90s. For some strange reason, emulating gangstas was quite popular when I was in middle school, so I've had my fill of skinny white-kid "gangstas" who were quite possibly the least intimidating kids at school. Justin Timberlake reminds me of those kids.

    Anyway, I don't think I could get past Timberlake trying to act tough. The point of the movie would be lost on me. Based on the previews alone, he seemed about as tough to me as Dustin Diamond would in that role.

  10. Rob D. says:

    Timberlake was actually very good. In reality, he didn't really play a tough guy. He actually played a guy who tried to appear to be tough to his friends, but had a big heart. Eric was right to take off in January but this was the best movie of the month. Smokin Aces was absolutely terrible, yet many people think it is better that Alpha Dog.

  11. Suhas says:

    This is a very bad movie.. dont watch if u got a free ticket!!!!

  12. Samantha says:

    I really really liked the movie.. i thought it was belivable with how people are going now a days.. they are selling drugs and what not and people arent paying back and getting into messes like the people in the movie are.. i find it totally reolistic and i didnt fall asleep in it once.. unlike "The Pristege"..So i think it was very well written and Justin's acting was really good in that show and i would like to see more movies like that.

  13. Avenger says:

    This movie makes it easy to see the least common denominator: Sex, drugs, alchohol, videos, video games, hip hop "philosophy", cash, power and no sense of thoughtfulness, discorse or logical order. Pure chaos.

    The kids are scum in this world where parents are ineffective, impotent, enabling maniquans. Each of the kidnappers needs to visit the Middle East....and receive a dose of instant Islamic justice- especially Hollywood. The same is true for the parents of these human feces. They all deserve the pain, angst and torture they will receive for the rest of their lives.

  14. chels says:

    I LOVED THIS MOVIE!!!!!! BEST MOVIE EVER! ALL THE GUYS ARE SOOO EFFIN SEXY!!!! I WATCH IT EVERYDAY!

  15. freaked out says:

    Thinnking a C- on this one. It just wasn't rright. The cover of the movie should have told me not to waste my friday night on this one. They're lucky I shared it with a beautiful girl, so not a total waste. And since it was her pick she'll probably hang out with me again. But should I hang out her? send freaked out some feed back. True love

  16. sunil says:

    This is the best movie i have ever seen !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. santa billy. says:

    ok so the whole cassavettes family in on this one, and what happened? based on the true story, and it got rolled around because j. truelove hadn't been tried convicted etc and they released the film? what gives? love the comment about how the bad fat plastic sharon was really the real mom... ... so what gives? what up with all that? all this fiction/non-fiction angle is what makes the movie somewhat interesting. that and the fact that sean picks hirsch up for the into the wild film later. very very . i'd like to know what it was all about. thanks.

  18. CP says:

    I agree with the post below. This movie was not filmed in Claremont. I lived in Claremont for over 15 years and was shocked to see that the movie took place there (I was unaware when I saw the movie that it didn't actually take place there). Throughout the flick I tried to recognize anything, but couldn't. I live in Pomona now, which is next door to Claremont. All of the geographical reference points found in the movie were accurate; all the way down to the name of the park where they said the kid was kidnapped (Cahuilla Park - which is in northern Claremont).

    Again, I didn't know that the kids- the movie portrayed- were actually from West Hills, CA. I mean, when I started watching the movie my heart sank when I saw the city name pop up at the bottom of the screen (in the begining), which was Claremont. It wasn't until after the movie that I found out it really took place in West Hills.

    Bottom line, all I gotta say is Claremont is nothing like how they portrayed it in the movie. As I said above, only the names they used were consistent with what is reality. They DID NOT FILM IT THERE. Anyhow, if you care, Claremont is a bomb town. Many famous people have lived there - including (the irony) - Snoop Doggy Dogg (at one point). ha!

  19. emysue says:

    Claremont is mostly nice....but don't be fooled...it has it's fair share of ghetto, too. That is part of the point of the movie. These were not a bunch of poor kids. Some of them came from higher income homes. Funny how the city of Claremont places it's welcome signs well within the city limits mostly by the Village.

  20. Ruth says:

    Alpha Dog is an amazing, & out going film. Which had a big impact on me in life. It made me cry at the end, because it was a true story the boy that got shot was only eight years ago & would be 23 now; thank god Elvis & Johnny got the death sentence in prison. Other wise more people could be dead.

    So who ever thinks Alpha Dog is a s**t film it is actually really could & people should not do like they did in the film.

  21. Ryan says:

    The real character Johnny played, Jesse James Hollywood hasn't been convited yet and is still awaiting trial. Though Hoyt(who was Elvis) is currently on deathrow.

    The movie itself was great and i loved it. Though, I have to agree with an early post and say Bully was a better movie.

  22. Louis says:

    I loved this movie

    will watch it again for sure

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