Alpha Dog is an urban tale about boys pretending to be men. At its centre is the story of Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) a small time drug dealer from Los Angeles immersed within and living the “gangster” life, one made popular by music video and rap culture. Together with his crew, Johnny emulates what he sees and identifies as the correct way to live his life. These decisions are never drawn into question because his father, Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis) – a “businessman” like his son, has passed on all his knowledge to Johnny.
When a series of altercations between Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) – an in debt member of Johnny’s crew – spiral out of control and Johnny impulsively kidnaps Zake Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), Jake’s kid brother, the boys pretending to be men are quickly revealed for what they truly are; children. Over the course of three days, Johnny and his crew’s lives are thrown into turmoil as their impulsive choice becomes a tragic mistake.
Based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, Alpha Dog is a cautionary film that speaks about parenting and the influence, or lack thereof, they can have in the lives of children. Throughout its running time it examines several relationships and suggests an equal number of reasons why particular members of Johnny’s crew are the way they are. Johnny is in training to be an ‘alpha dog’ because his father has instilled certain values within him; Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake) has more of a business arrangement with his father than a relationship and fifteen year old Zake is almost smothered by too much love.
These interesting, and often conflicting, dynamics and characters make Alpha Dog an engaging watch, with the film best described as a modern take on Lord of the Flies. This may not be an island devoid of mature adult supervision but it sure feels like it.
Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) directs his ensemble of talented actors – yes, this does include Timberlake – with great skill and manages to elicit some fantastic performances. However, a messy and unfocused script becomes Alpha Dog’s most prominent weakness.
While there’s no denying Johnny Truelove is a character worthy of a film, the relationship that develops between the kidnapped Zake and Frankie soon becomes, what should have always been, the central relationship in Alpha Dog. Timberlake, whose character at first appears laughable – tattoos covering his lanky body as he “pumps” iron in a garage gym – undergoes a transformation that not only grabbed my attention but also surprised me.
Justin Timberlake can act. Together with up-and-coming talent Anton Yelchin, they provide a reason for audiences to care about what is happening on screen. Their friendship comes across as genuine and as the events around them unfolded I began to care for them and grow anxious about what would happen to the young Zake. Alpha Dog’s best moments can be found when Yelchin and Timberlake are on screen together.
With the rest of the film, Cassavetes simply tries to do too much and the scope of his film becomes too broad – focusing on too many characters and their individual stories. Using a documentary/interview approach to certain segments of the film helps to contextualize Alpha Dog as being based on “true events” (although the film’s press kit makes no mention of Jesse James Hollywood), however, it also detracts from the film’s narrative. One minute you’re in the world of the characters and the next you’re kicked out and forced to watch somebody talking about them.
Alpha Dog is an enjoyable film that should have been streamlined (both in its script and editing – certain scenes are way too long) in order to allow its true narrative to come to the surface. Instead, we are only allowed a glimpse of it during the film’s closing half. Alpha Dog does raise some interesting questions about parenting and rearing children but if Nick Cassavetes had only used these topics as starting points and instead focused on a tighter and leaner storyline, the film could have been so much more potent.