Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: A Cautionary Tale: The Making Of Alpha Dog; Witness Timeline Featurette.
NICK Cassavetes Alpha Dog is a hard-hitting, warts-and-all look at one of the most shocking youth crimes to make American headlines in a while. And it’s this basis in reality that makes it all the more compelling, despite setting a potentially worrying precedent for this kind of thing.
The film is “based” on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, a 20-year-old drug dealer currently awaiting trial for allegedly ordering the execution of a 15-year-old teenager whose half brother owed him money.
I write “based” because the film sticks pretty close to reality, rounding out proceedings with footnotes on the fate of the surviving characters and only changing Hollywood’s name to Johnny Truelove by way of side-stepping any legal wrangling.
The story examines the fallout from a violent disagreement between Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and hot-headed former employee Jake (Ben Foster), which prompts Truelove to kidnap Jake’s pubescent half-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) until a debt is cleared.
When the police are called by Zack’s distraught mother (Sharon Stone), however, Truelove finds himself facing a long stint in prison and orders the execution of his young hostage and the disappearance of the body.
But planning and getting away with murder isn’t as easy as it seems, particularly as Truelove’s crew – including Justin Timberlake’s smooth-talking Frankie – have formed a nice bond with Zack who, in turn, is having the weekend of his life “in captivity”.
Early on, Cassavetes’ film works hard to distinguish itself from the glut of coming-of-age movies such as A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and Havoc that take an unflinching look at the darker side of American youth culture.
It’s foul-mouthed and hell-bent on playing up the hedonism, making some of the early scenes quite boring.
But once the kidnap has occurred and the fate of its endearing young hostage becomes clear, Alpha Dog takes on a grim inevitability that actually gives rise to some genuinely poignant moments.
It’s when young cast members such as Yelchin and Timberlake really get to shine and when the cautionary elements of the tale really take hold (Timberlake, in particular, proves himself an extremely competent actor after his disappointing debut in Edison).
Strong, too, are the likes of Hirsch as the baby-faced dealer and Foster as Zack’s manic brother – while Bruce Willis does some good work as Truelove’s father (and possible benefactor).
Unfortunately, Cassavetes seems to want to have his cake and eat it and can’t resist over-indulging on the tragedy of the story. His decision to draw things out proves ill-advised and even reduces Sharon Stone to a hysterically awful moment in which she over-acts in a fat suit.
For anyone willing to forgive the film its excesses, however, Alpha Dog remains riveting viewing made all the more frightening by its basis in reality.
Although the decision to release it ahead of Hollywood’s real-life trial could set the worrying precedent I mentioned earlier. It seems a curious choice legally, let alone morally.
Running time: 117mins