Based on a California kidnapping case from 2000, the film centers on a passel of drugged-out teen reprobates for whom every word is a four-letter one beginning with F, every action is a reaction to some perceived slight and every waking moment is an opportunity to be squandered. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes clearly sees his film as a cautionary tale, and there are moments when its depiction of aimless youth gone terribly awry -- in cinematic terms, it's a cross between Larry Clark's Kids and Brian De Palma's Scarface -- is almost paralyzingly chilling.
But Cassavetes stacks the deck too much. Every kid is, at best, a proud sluggard, at worst, a murderous hedonist, while the adults are either amoral or ineffective. And he casually dismisses the idea that anyone under 20 is responsible for anything he does, insisting instead that everything comes down to lax parents or unrelenting peer pressure. Alpha Dog is like a perfect storm of teen-age solipsism, a worst-case scenario in which the audience's fatalism is trumped by extreme depression. If this is the characters' world, they're welcome to it. The rest of us don't want any part.
Baddest among the assorted poseurs of Alpha Dog is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a high-level drug dealer whose lush, party-hardy lifestyle has attracted any number of sycophants. They're all Johnny wannabes, but lack two things: his street cred, and his daddy (Bruce Willis), who supplies the drugs in the first place.
Lately, however, Johnny's been having a problem. There's this speed addict, Jake (Ben Foster), who owes him $1,200, and seems in no hurry to pay. Determined to get his money back, Johnny and a group of associates head to Jake's house, presumably to rough him up a little. But when they spy Jake's 15-year-old brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), walking along the road, an opportunity seems to present itself. Not that these lunkheads know exactly what the opportunity is, but they know there's one somewhere. So they grab the kid, throw him into the car and speed away.
All this seems vaguely threatening, and for the longest time, that's all it is. No one really wants to hurt Zack at first. Unsure of what to do next, Johnny entrusts Zack to the care of the easygoing, ever-eager-to-please Frankie (Justin Timberlake), with instructions to just keep him under wraps -- which, to Frankie, means taking the kid partying, watching some TV with him, even introducing him to the pleasures of the flesh.
Slowly, a few sobering truths begin to dawn on Johnny. For one thing, he's really ticked off Jake, who is clearly of murderous intent. For another, what he and his fellow bright bulbs have done to Zack is kidnap him -- a crime that could lead to hard time if the kid ever gets loose and tells anyone his story.
What to do?
Alpha Dog skillfully lulls its audience into a false sense of security; while there's violence throughout the film, it's mostly of the punch-and-kick variety. The perception is that these kids are playing a game, and that nothing truly bad is going to happen. Still, everything points to a coming tragedy, and when Johnny's pathetic lapdog Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), a kid who'll do anything to make his boss happy, shows up with a gun, you know that can't be good.
What Alpha Dog doesn't do is give its audience anyone to latch onto; every character is thoroughly unlikable -- except possibly for Zack, who's too aimless and pitiful for most people to identify with. Even the one voice of reason in the whole film, Dominique Swain as a teen-age party girl with a semblance of conscience, screeches everything. That sort of constant shrillness wears thin quickly.
Only Timberlake, in a performance better than anyone had a right to expect, makes his character anything but a high-decibel miscreant. His Frankie exists only to keep his buds happy -- a tragic flaw, given his buds' predilection for criminal stupidity. By the time he figures out how dangerous this game they're playing is, it's way too late to stop.
There's also the uneasy tone Cassavetes sets. At times, Alpha Dog is so over the top, it almost seems like a comedy. A film like this can use a little lightness of tone once in a while, but Cassavetes pushes the humor (assuming it's intentional, which I can't guarantee) with the same pedal-to-the-metal ferocity of the rest of the film.
This past year has already seen a great teen-crime film -- the woefully overlooked Brick, a teen noir in which writer-director Rian Johnson managed to make his characters threatening without being morbid, dangerous without being abusive. Where Brick was insidiously entertaining, Alpha Dog too often settles for just plain insidious.