A great deal is being made out of the fact that Alpha Dog is based on a true story. A young man with the unlikely name of Jesse James Hollywood (in the film he's called Johnny Truelove) presently awaits trial for the events described in this movie, having eluded the police for years before finally being arrested in Paraguay.
Johnny Truelove is the Alpha Dog of the title, the local teenage weed king being supplied by his mobster Dad, played by Bruce Willis. When one of his underlings, Anton Mazursky, fails to collect a debt, the two men fall out over the money and begin a costly tit for tat feud which culminates in Johnny driving by Anton's 15 year old half brother Zach and deciding spontaneously to abduct Zach and hold him as a marker to get Anton to pay up.
Truelove turns Zach over to one of his lieutenants, Frankie Ballenbacher, played by Justin Timberlake. Frankie is not thrilled by the whole kidnapping idea and he basically treats Zach like a house guest more than a prisoner, supplying Zach with booze, cigarettes and dope, and, most importantly, introducing him to girls.
Frankie is convinced that failing everything else they can always just release Zach who is so happy over his "lost weekend" adventure that he will gladly lie to protect Truelove and his gang. Truelove is less certain, especially when he finds out the actual penalties involved in a kidnapping. In any case, the abduction has less to do with the money and everything to do with a complicated game of dominance that he is playing with Anton. Releasing Zach without some form of concession from Anton, would be to admit Anton's victory, something that Truelove has no intention of doing.
The movie is bookended by a documentary crew talking to the subjects in the case. Uppping the sense of dread is the way that each character is introduced in the film by their name and as either a suspect or a witness.
(I should mention that Sharon Stone is totally fearless in the documentary section of the film featuring her. Completely vulnerable, emotionally naked and incredibly beautiful in the most ugly way possible.)
It is one of the oddest things about this case, that so many people witnessed the events and yet no one contacted the police until it was too late. On one hand, you have to wonder how the pot-heads involved ever thought that they were going to get away with a crime that was for all intents and purposes being done in front of their entire community.
The film briefly touches on the idea, but one has to wonder how much of this crime was driven by the fact that like the British gangsters The Krays, the young teens involved took their behavioural cues from their media heroes, in the case of the Krays from Hollywood gangsters and in the case of these drug dealers from hip-hop gangsters and pimps. Obviously someone named Jesse James Hollywood is influenced a little too strongly by the media around him. Did that make this crime that much easier?
The film suffers slightly from the fact that the motivation of its most important character, Frankie, is unclear. Truelove's desire to maintain his alpha dog status is clear. The syncophantic nature of his chief henchman in the crime, Elvis, is also clear. But we areless certain as to the final motivations of Frankie. This is not entirely Justin Timberlake's fault. He has been justly praised for his acting work in his film and he is quite capable of playing the seductive charmer who keeps Zach from escaping by leaving the doors to the prison wide open at all times.
When the film takes a darker turn, however, we are left confused as to why Frankie goes along with the tragedy. Nick Cassavetes gives Frankie no oportunity to explain, so the entire explanation must be internal, and Justin Timeberlake is simply not a good enough actor to give us the internal motivations of the character to allow us to understand him.
Or, and this is perhaps the darker thread of this movie. Perhaps Timberlake and Cassavetes give us no reason for Frankie's actions, because there are no reasons. Perhaps, this movie is about the hollow place in the souless, amoral heart of the American teenager... and of America.
For further depressing viewing, I would strongly recommend that you follow up this film with River's Edge another movie about true crime and American teenage apathy.
THIS WEEK IN TV * In last week's premieres, Castle did well, but probably any show would do the same airing after Dancing With The Stars. Chopping Block did fine for a reality show, but it doesn't look like Hell's Kitchen-level ratings are in reach.