Alpha Dog may well go down as the most dispiriting film of 2007. It's asordid depiction of a bunch of sordid people doing unbelievably sordidthings. The lunkheads portrayed in this film would be funny, were theresults of their vapidity not so inexorably tragic.
Based on a California kidnapping case from 2000, the film centers on apassel of drugged-out teen reprobates for whom every word is afour-letter one beginning with F, every action is a reaction to someperceived slight and every waking moment is an opportunity to besquandered. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes clearly sees his film as acautionary tale, and there are moments when its depiction of aimlessyouth gone terribly awry -- in cinematic terms, it's a cross betweenLarry Clark's Kids and Brian De Palma's Scarface -- is almostparalyzingly chilling.
But Cassavetes stacks the deck too much. Every kid is, at best, a proudsluggard, at worst, a murderous hedonist, while the adults are eitheramoral or ineffective. And he casually dismisses the idea that anyoneunder 20 is responsible for anything he does, insisting instead thateverything comes down to lax parents or unrelenting peer pressure. AlphaDog is like a perfect storm of teen-age solipsism, a worst-case scenarioin which the audience's fatalism is trumped by extreme depression. Ifthis is the characters' world, they're welcome to it. The rest of usdon'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-hardylifestyle has attracted any number of sycophants. They're all Johnnywannabes, 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 speedaddict, Jake (Ben Foster), who owes him $1,200, and seems in no hurry topay. Determined to get his money back, Johnny and a group of associateshead to Jake's house, presumably to rough him up a little. But when theyspy Jake's 15-year-old brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), walking along theroad, an opportunity seems to present itself. Not that these lunkheadsknow exactly what the opportunity is, but they know there's onesomewhere. 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 allit is. No one really wants to hurt Zack at first. Unsure of what to donext, Johnny entrusts Zack to the care of the easygoing,ever-eager-to-please Frankie (Justin Timberlake), with instructions tojust keep him under wraps -- which, to Frankie, means taking the kidpartying, watching some TV with him, even introducing him to thepleasures 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. Foranother, what he and his fellow bright bulbs have done to Zack is kidnaphim -- a crime that could lead to hard time if the kid ever gets looseand 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 thepunch-and-kick variety. The perception is that these kids are playing agame, and that nothing truly bad is going to happen. Still, everythingpoints to a coming tragedy, and when Johnny's pathetic lapdog Elvis(Shawn Hatosy), a kid who'll do anything to make his boss happy, showsup 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 theone voice of reason in the whole film, Dominique Swain as a teen-ageparty girl with a semblance of conscience, screeches everything. Thatsort of constant shrillness wears thin quickly.
Only Timberlake, in a performance better than anyone had a right toexpect, makes his character anything but a high-decibel miscreant. HisFrankie exists only to keep his buds happy -- a tragic flaw, given hisbuds' predilection for criminal stupidity. By the time he figures outhow 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 soover the top, it almost seems like a comedy. A film like this can use alittle lightness of tone once in a while, but Cassavetes pushes thehumor (assuming it's intentional, which I can't guarantee) with the samepedal-to-the-metal ferocity of the rest of the film.
This past year has already seen a great teen-crime film -- the woefullyoverlooked Brick, a teen noir in which writer-director Rian Johnsonmanaged to make his characters threatening without being morbid,dangerous without being abusive. Where Brick was insidiouslyentertaining, Alpha Dog too often settles for just plain insidious.