Done well, this film could have intelligently tackled the issue of what allegiances still stand in a world where money and guns speak louder than words. Done with a bigger budget and a different writer, this film could have served as a cautionary tale of the dangers of inadvertently falling into the seedy underworld of drugs.
The film, however, does neither of these things. Throughout the film, I anticipated some degree of complexity, and it never arrived. No amount of brilliant word-crafting or inspired acting could have turned this film around — it seems as if the film’s tragic flaw lies within its very premise.
Emile Hirsch plays Johnny Truelove, a drug dealer with little patience for people who owe him money. Ben Foster is Jake Mazursky, who is indebted to Truelove. Conveniently enough for Truelove, Mazursky’s 15-year-old brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), runs away from home. Truelove and his “posse” spot the angsty teen and kidnap him in order to serve as a marker for the elder Mazursky’s debts. Little does Zack know that the next 72 hours in store are essentially every 15-year-old boy’s fantasies of what “running away from home” would be like.
Zack spends the next few days quite comfortably, enjoying the excess that Truelove’s lifestyle provides. Booze, women and marijuana are three items Truelove and his cronies never lack. While Zack’s parents become increasingly worried over the whereabouts of their son, Zack forms a bond of sorts with Frankie Ballenbacher, who is played by none other than the man who allegedly brought sexy back, Justin Timberlake.
Inevitably, all good things must come to an end. Truelove discovers that his role in Zack’s disappearance could land him in jail for life, and the only option left for him is to kill Zack. This logic would have served Truelove well if he had choreographed the entire crime in a more intelligent manner. It would seem that the first rule of kidnapping is to either disguise the victim or keep them on a constant level of low visibility. (There were upwards of 30 witnesses who saw Zack during the time he was kidnapped, and his status as a sort of “ransom” was openly discussed with numerous people.)
Interestingly enough, the film is based on a true story. This leads me to wonder which is the greater disservice committed by this film: turning the story behind the murder of a 15-year-old boy into an attempt at entertainment, or the fact that the poorly developed and executed plans of a group of wannabe gangsters was considered worthwhile subject matter for a two-hour film.
The “gangsters” in question are played by an ensemble of males who collectively have no more “street cred” than Aaron Carter. If this was intentional on Cassavetes’s part, I applaud him. The actors appear to be doing nothing more than parading around in wife-beaters, playing with guns and posturing as “tough guys.” Due to the nature of the crime and the people on which this film is based, this may very well be fitting.
The two redeeming qualities of the film lie in Bruce Willis’s performance as Truelove’s father and various camera angles and techniques that are employed intermittently. Even so, these elements fail to revive a struggling film. Alpha Dog fails to bring a “true crime” to life or to create a gripping picture of the world of drugs.
Truth be told, Alpha Dog should have been put to sleep long before it made its debut in theaters.