Take one part true-crime narrative, one part disaffected youth commentary, add a touch of coming-of-age, and what do you get? Just what you’d expect—a muddled and unfocused, if occasionally compelling, film that disappoints despite its promising potential. The underachiever in question is Alpha Dog, director Nick Cassavetes’ tense, violent tale of an ill-conceived kidnapping plot gone awry. Based on the true story of San Fernando Valley drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood (thankfully renamed Johnny Truelove here), Alpha Dog entertains at a relatively fast clip, but simultaneously frustrates its audience by failing to commit to one coherent theme.
Truelove, played by Emile Hirsch, is a 20-year-old dealer who has acquired enough wealth, power and notoriety to command his own small gang of tattooed thugs. Hirsch is considerably over matched by the role, in which he’s miscast as a kind of mini-Scarface for the late ’90s: his diminutive stature, slender features, patchy beard and whiny attitude do little to correct his lack of gravitas. When Jake, a speed-addicted, anxiety-riddled debtor (Ben Foster, who is especially overwrought here) fails to square up, Johnny takes matters into his own hands and spontaneously kidnaps the deadbeat’s 15-year-old brother, Zach (Anton Yelchin, spot-on as a picture of innocence).
Upon learning of the grave consequences of the crime, Truelove decides to lay low and places Zach into the care of his right hand man, Frankie, played by Justin Timberlake in his film debut. Frankie is easily the most likable character in the film, mostly because Timberlake’s role, which is essential to the plot, requires the most depth—and he delivers. This is a movie full of villains without a hero, but Frankie is the closest thing to a true heart in Alpha Dog, and Justin still manages to maintain the type of grit and street cred (effortlessly shrugging off pop-star status) Hirsch so sorely lacks. Unlike Hirsch, Foster, and Sharon Stone (as Zach’s manic mother), who all suck the life from the film, Timberlake’s presence seems to turn on an extra light, grabbing the audience’s attention back, if only for a short while.
Yelchin and Timberlake’s on screen chemistry provides all of Alpha Dog’s few endearing moments, as captive and captor form an unlikely bond and the “kidnapping” becomes more of a vacation. The coming-of-age theme, in which Zach clearly emulates Frankie (and Frankie, in return, relishes the big brother role), works spiritedly until, under the weight of consequence and reality, it crumbles away and Alpha Dog takes an unwelcome grim turn. It’s this type of mood-swinging indecision that represents most of Alpha Dog’s flaws. Elsewhere, Cassavetes occasionally jots datelines across the screen and includes faux interviews in documentary style; later, this method is puzzlingly offset by the MTV-style split-screen camera views.
There’s much to be said here about idle youth corrupted by power, or the consequences of impulsive bad decisions, or a score of other themes touched on in the film’s usually watchable, yet equally frustrating two hours. And that’s just the thing—they’re merely touched on, never sufficiently explored. Inevitably, due to the nature of its plot, Alpha Dog can’t end well for most—if any—of its characters. It’s just a shame we couldn’t have learned something with them on the way down.