Alpha Dog

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As revenge for his brother's betrayal of drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Hirsch), Zack (Yelchin) is kidnapped and experiences a weekend of sexual awakening and utter terror.


On the dusty post-it note that bears the list of singers who can actually act, let the name Justin Timberlake be scrawled just below Jennifer Hudson (both chronologically and alphabetically satisfying). The bringer-back of sexy may not be the star of Nick Cassavetes’ movie, but it is he, along with the milk-faced Anton Yelchin, who seizes the film and shakes some life into its confused, awkward body.

Cassavetes has in his hands a terrific true story, that of Jesse James Hollywood, a man so ridiculously named he could only be a drug dealer (the name was changed to Johnny Truelove after the real Hollywood was brought to face trial). Truelove (Emile Hirsch) kidnaps the younger brother of a debtor and holds him to ransom with tragic consequences. But Cassavetes misreads the best angle to take. Hirsch’s uninteresting performance, and the fact Truelove spends most of his time outside the action, means his is a largely inert journey to watch. That Cassavetes chooses to make him the focus of the narrative, bookending the film with Truelove’s fate and inserting needless, aimless faux-documentary footage catching up with those who knew him (including an unintentionally hilarious Sharon Stone in a fat suit), kills the film’s momentum and takes away from its much stronger storyline.

The story that moves, thrills and breaks the heart is that of Zack (Yelchin), the pubescent hostage who has the greatest weekend of his life when thrown into the hedonistic LA drug scene. The knowledge that his weekend will culminate in a loss of more than innocence makes his fear-tinged-with-excitement almost unbearable. Cassavetes’ poignant direction of these scenes is infinitely helped by Yelchin, who quivers excitedly like a drunk puppy, and Timberlake as his babysitter. Easy and charismatic, Timberlake proves himself the real deal as he swaggers confidently through the movie’s most difficult scenes.

But lack of focus pulls Alpha Dog up short. Trimmed of some of the Hollywood fat and with a few of the performances reigned in a little — the usually reliable Ben Foster gives as manically awful a turn as you’ll see this year — and Cassavetes could have had a cool little heartbreaker on his hands. Instead he has a terrific film fighting to prevent being smothered by a louder, more boorish and infinitely less compelling one.

It suffers from ADD, but there’s some terrific stuff in here. Leaving 15 minutes from the end and saving yourself a lumbering coda may improve enjoyment.