A fictionalized E! True Hollywood Story starring a bevy of hot young actors—and a few aging vets sporting awkward hairpieces (Bruce Willis) or grotesque fat prosthetics (Sharon Stone)—Nick Cassavetes’s Alpha Dog arrives in theaters after numerous delays caused by legal wrangling over the procurement of documents relating to its true-life source material. No “inspired by actual events” notation accompanies the film, but Cassavetes’s on-screen timestamps and use of text to note the names of witnesses to the central crime makes clear its real-world basis, which involved a group of teens’ marijuana and hip-hop-fueled decisions to engage in felony kidnapping and murder.
Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a big-time Cali pot pusher in 1999 when a falling out with psychotic neo-Nazi associate Jake (Ben Foster) over an unpaid debt compels him and his boys—including right-hand man Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and demeaned whipping boy Elvis (Shawn Hatosy)—to nab Jake’s younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) and hold him for ransom. It’s a crime that Zack, ironically, treats as a welcome escape from his stultifying middle-class home life with wimpy dad (David Thornton) and smothering mother (Stone), a not altogether surprising reaction given that his captivity is spent getting high and having only-in-the-movies threeways in motel swimming pools.
A crew of racist, sexist, homophobic wannabe Tony Montanas, Johnny and company’s proactive irresponsibility complicates a claim made by Johnny’s complicit father Sonny (Willis), delivered in one of many lame faux-verité 2003 interviews, that the unfortunate situation was caused by “bad parenting.” Yet Cassavetes is less interested in investigating such conduct’s origins than in exploiting the crime’s particulars for cheap thrills. Essentially one of those hypocritical cautionary tales in which moral lessons—here, that you shouldn’t treat life like a “Guns And Bitches” music video, and that constantly calling a guy “faggot” will drive him to homicide—are contradicted by glorification of said appalling behavior, Alpha Dog boasts a menacing drum n’ bass score and lots of meaningless split-screen effects.
Which doesn’t, however, prevent it from being sporadically entertaining, a fact owing to a finger-in-the-socket turn by Foster (in the type of bonkers role usually reserved for Giovanni Ribisi) and Timberlake—attempting to bring tattooback via copious body art—delivering an empathetic, nuanced performance that captures how selfishness and naïveté can inadvertently lead to tragedy. Not to mention that buried deep within the film’s compilation of gangsta poses and blustery profanity lies a sage warning for prospective drug users: pot may impair your decision-making, but only speed will drive a man to drop trou and crap on another’s living room floor.