"Alpha Dog" is based on a true storythat of a kidnapping-turned-murder that made prime conspirator Jesse James Hollywood the youngest man to ever be on the FBI's most wanted listbut its non-fiction roots fail to keep it from treading on overly familiar turf. Most recently, variations on the same basic plot have been covered in 2001's devastating "Bully" and 2005's suburban dramedy "The Chumscrubber." As for its stark depiction of privileged wayward teens with too much time on their hands and not enough parental concern, it, too, seems like old-hat and not given quite enough depth besides. What "Alpha Dog" boils down to, then, is a two-dimensional movie about a bunch of really, really stupid kids involved in a crime as senseless as it is brutal.
With Jesse James Hollywood still awaiting trial in real-life, his cinematic name has been changed for legal purposes to Johnny Truelove. Played by Emile Hirsh (2004's "The Girl Next Door
"), Johnny is an 18-year-old drug dealer living it up with a constant stream of friends and acquaintances by his side. When the meth-addicted Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) can't come up with the money he owes Johnny, an increasingly extreme feud of back-and-forth one-upmanship is fueled. Enter Jake's impressionable 15-year-old stepbrother Zack (Anton Yelchin), whom Johnny and pals Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) and Tiko (Fernando Vargas) see an opportunity to kidnap, and take it. With Zack angry with his folks anyway, he becomes a willing hostage introduced to an initially exciting world of sex, drugs and constant partying. The longer Zack stays gone, however, the higher the stakes raise for the way-over-their-heads culprits, who begin to see murder as their only chance to escape prison time.
Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes (taking a 180-degree turn from 2004's weepy romancer "The Notebook
"), "Alpha Dog" is an uneven crime drama that, although quite faithful to the actual case it portrays, has trouble finding its emotional center. With few exceptions, the teen and twentysomething characters are penned in too one-note a fashion to be fully realized, and their reasoning over Zack's impending slaughter isn't just misguided, it's downright idiotic. Zack is given plenty of chances to leave on his own accord, but he doesn't take themhe's having too much funand so what starts as a kidnapping becomes little more than a kid simply hanging out with the "cool" crowd. Because the killing is completely mindless, it's difficult to whip up sympathy for anyone other than the victim; the rest of them deserve their fates.
Despite the movie purporting to be about Johnny Truelove, he is a decidedly uninteresting figure who stands at a distance from the main action while orchestrating his lapdogs to do the dirty work for him. Emile Hirsch is slimy and hateful as Johnny; this is what the actor was instructed to do, no doubt, but it strips him of a much-needed soul. Wisely, the film is more interested in the friendship that evolves between Frankie and Zack when the former is put in charge of keeping tabs on the latter. Frankie recognizes that nothing but trouble can come of what they are doing, and, in the picture's most involving sequences leading up to the tragic crime, is torn between what he knows is right and what he believes could save himself.
In the picture's two best performances, recording artist Justin Timberlake is both intense and nicely understated as Frankie, better than one could have any reason to expect, and Anton Yelchin (2001's "Hearts in Atlantis
") is poignant as Zack, a relative innocent who has no idea of the plot going on around him until it is too late. The centerpiece scene, in which the inevitable murder takes place, is dramatically powerful in a way that the rest of the film is not. With the loss of this life is the loss of something much greaterthat of a future stolen, crucial words not spoken, relationships unfinished, and a whole line of friends and family members whose lives will forever be shattered as an aftereffect.
The supporting cast is a mixed bagBen Foster (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
"), for one, goes over-the-top as Jake before vanishing altogetherbut they work well as an ensemble. Still, it's a shame that more couldn't have been done with some of the brighter performers. Amanda Seyfried (2004's "Mean Girls
") is a scene-stealer as Julie, an energetic temptress who gets a soft spot for Zack; Dominique Swain (2002's "Pumpkin
") has some effective moments as Susan, who is adamantly against the kidnapping; and Christopher Marquette (2005's "Just Friends
") strikes some honest notes as Susan's brother Keith, who gets more than he bargained for when he opts to stay behind once the party is over. As Zack's grieving mother Olivia, Sharon Stone's (2006's "Bobby
") solid work is overshadowed in her final scene by a distractingly unrealistic fat suit that renders the scene unintentionally comic.
"Alpha Dog" isn't a total wash, but it is unfocused, overstuffed and routine. This extends from the early scenes, which are awkwardly staged and underdeveloped, to the multiple endings that don't know when to quit. There is a point early in the third act where the film could have ended, and perhaps could have been forgiven for its flaws, but it presses forward for another fifteen minutes and loses all sight of what the movie should have been about: the grossly unnecessary murder of an underage child taken long before his time. "Alpha Dog" owes a lot to Larry Clark's "Bully," and ultimately can't hold a candle to it.