ALPHA DOG written and directed by Nick Cassavetes, with Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis. 117 minutes. A Universal release. Opens Friday (January 12). Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Alpha Dog is fundamentally the same juvenile delinquent drama we've been watching since 1936's Reefer Madness, giving us sin in the first act and the wages of in the second.
It's prime exploitation fodder, pushing cheap thrills even as it condemns them. But Alpha Dog plays equally well as an existential crime drama in which the thrills and morals emerge on their own.
Writer/director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) goes the route of 1986's brilliant River's Edge - arguably the genre's finest moment - by adapting a bizarre fact-based story that delivers the drama and keeps the tension cranked.
Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a prospering young drug dealer financed by his loyal dad (a very convincing Bruce Willis), impulsively snatches Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), the 15-year-old brother of psycho Jake (Ben Foster), who owes him money.
It goes wrong from the start. Truelove and his crew are drug-addled little wankstas belly-up in their monied suburban bubble. They're barely aware that they've committed a crime, and have no idea how to proceed. They end up treating their equally clueless victim as a party guest.
Hirsch, Justin Timberlake as his number-one boy and the rest of the cast do a convincing job. Most of them are nearing 30, but that doesn't jar - we're used to Western civilization's extended adolescence.
Cassavetes keeps things moving and edgy. The imitation documentary segments and his trick of tagging characters with witness numbers add to the realism. In true exploitation tradition, he provides lots of sex and violence. In existential dramatic tradition, he makes it all joyless and uses it to reveal character.
The problem is, these kids don't have much character to reveal. Beneath the posturing, they're spoiled brats, spineless, despicable wastoids. Not a brain in sight. No heart, no virtues, no morals. Therefore, no tragedy, no sense of lives wasted.
What's left is a sense of disgust and a chilly little pleasure at watching them get their comeuppance.