Ripped from the headlines and hurled to the screen with more hopped-up energy than insight, “Alpha Dog” is standard-issue tabloid fare pimped out as a serious true-crime saga. Based on the events surrounding longtime fugitive Jesse James Hollywood and a kidnapping that went pointlessly, tragically awry, writer-director Nick Cassavetes’ sprawling dramatization recklessly blurs the line between reconstruction and reality in ways that are admittedly interesting, if more than a little artistically suspect. Curiosity in the real-life story, boosted by publicity relating to Cassavetes’ own entanglement in the legal proceedings, could draw moderate returns for the New Line release.
One of the youngest men to end up on the FBI’s most-wanted list, Hollywood was arrested in March in connection with the August 2000 abduction and murder of San Fernando Valley teenager Nicholas Markowitz. While four others were apprehended and convicted not long after the incident, Hollywood was still at large when pic began production in 2004, and prosecutors, hoping the project would help smoke him out, granted Cassavetes an extraordinary if legally controversial level of access to the case file.
Given these resources, plus the atmosphere of sordid truth-telling that shrouds the whole enterprise like pot smoke, it’s odd that “Alpha Dog” (which, after “John Q.,” reps Cassavetes’ second stab at socially relevant storytelling) doesn’t feel more revelatory or honest. Rather, pic’s hypothetical re-creation of Markowitz’s last days and swingin’ depictions of wasted Southern California youth feel as though they’ve been conceived for a routine studio fiction, while stylistically, the incorporation of mock-documentary footage and occasional use of split-screen come across as flippant rather than illuminating.
Hollywood’s stand-in here goes by the similarly iconic name of Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a young drug dealer who spends most of his time carousing with buddies Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) and Tiko (Fernando Vargas) at his pad in the San Gabriel Valley. A round of partying is interrupted one night by volatile junkie Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), whose refusal to pay back more than $1,000 in drug debts quickly makes him Johnny’s No. 1 enemy.
Jake’s woes have only furthered his estrangement from fed-up dad Butch (David Thornton) and step mom Olivia (a fierce Sharon Stone), although their 15-year-old son Zack (Anton Yelchin) regards his half-brother with both admiration and envy.
Cassavetes’ script carefully engineers the fateful moment of intersection between the gangbanger tensions and the Mazurskys’ domestic angst. Fleeing from an argument one morning, Zack runs right into Johnny and his pals, who rough him up and take him prisoner, determined to hold him as collateral until Jake pays up.
Pic suddenly transitions into heightened docudrama mode, keeping track of the date and time and regularly pausing to identify the multiple peripheral characters and bystanders whose real-life counterparts would later come forward as witnesses.
For the most part, however, these affectations suggest a desperate attempt to authenticate an already overcrowded and geographically muddled yarn.
Story’s most intriguing element is the bond that develops between Zack and Frankie (played with conviction by Timberlake), who drags the boy to his home in Palm Springs. Cute but corruptible, Zack turns out to be quite happy sampling Frankie’s decadent lifestyle, even losing his virginity to two girls in a swimming pool, in a scene that feels like an outtake from “Wild Things.”
Robert Fraisse’s widescreen lensing smoothly accommodates the many bodies moving through the frame during the party sequences, though it’s never clear whether pic is merely observing its characters’ debauched lifestyle or exploiting it. Still, these scenes do stay true to the well-documented fact that while several people saw Markowitz during his final hours (some of whom knew he had been kidnapped), the overall party atmosphere was so unthreatening that no one notified the police.
Climax, when it finally arrives, is terrible but unprotracted — not something that can be said of the subsequent tying up of loose ends.
Cassavetes elicits strong to mixed perfs, with the heavily tattooed Timberlake surprisingly credible as the drama’s moral fulcrum and Hirsch adopting a distinct strain of impudent, boyish authority. As Jake, Foster delivers an arrestingly showy vacuum of a performance that ultimately has nothing to resonate against.
Stone’s later scenes allow her to go impressively raw and over the top, but her grief following Zack’s death, captured in mock-doc style with the actress suddenly wearing a fatsuit, is grotesque, not because the emotions are so intense but because the approach is so pushy. The cast’s other big name, Bruce Willis, simply looks bored as Johnny’s paunchy pop.