Nick Cassavetes’s Alpha Dog is based on a real-life story that’s still waiting for its ending: In 2000, a gang of SoCal kids kidnapped and murdered 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, a soft-spoken boy from the San Fernando Valley who dreamed of becoming a rabbi and was sacrificed as payment for his older half-brother’s drug debt—a measly $1,200. Four teens were convicted of the murder; the ringleader, a teeny Tony Montana with the real-life moniker of Jesse James Hollywood, escaped to Brazil, where he was arrested in 2005.
Hollywood now awaits trial, and his attorney has tried to block the release of Alpha Dog, claiming it convicts his client before he’s had the chance to prove his innocence. The movie is getting a negligible release as it is—a shove into the January dumping ground, where nothing survives for long. It deserves better.
Writer-director Cassavetes, who prepped for the movie by poring over off-limits files leaked by the case’s prosecutor, smartly stages much of his tragedy as though it were a comedy of errors—the plans of dumbass punks gone awry. Hollywood, here named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), is, after all, not a great criminal mastermind, but merely a baby-faced punk who deals weed to spoiled Valley girls and their hip-hopped-up boyfriends. Truelove’s posse, as threatening as any hallway gang at your average prep school, includes Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy), a subservient clown who suffers Johnny’s abuse and Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), a swaggering sidekick clad in tank tops to display his tats. No way they could kill a kid (here named Zack and played by Anton Yelchin), not these wake-and-bakers.
( Alpha Dog isn’t simply about boys and girls gone wild—that’s Larry Clark’s
milieu, and even he’s worn it sheer—but also about the parents who allow it to happen because they’re either doped-up imbeciles wearing plasticine grins, absentee assholes waving the occasional iron fist, or both.)
Cassavetes, cut loose after tethering himself to the old-fashioned, ham-handed romance of The Notebook, digs his new role as New Journalist, laying out a horrific tale of suburban indulgence gone wrong. He’s so into the movie he put himself in the movie: That’s his voice you hear on the soundtrack, interviewing folks about their roles in Johnny’s life and Zack’s death. Cassavetes gets overly enthusiastic with the docudrama form at times—lots of split-screen, in an attempt to make
Alpha Dog play like some seedy ’70s crime drama—but I’m tempted to forgive his excesses because the guy knows tension. How better to ram home the horrific consequences than by building up the boys’ actions as little more than rough-and-tumble fun?
And, if nothing else, Alpha Dog‘s worth a look for the performance of Justin Timberlake, the moral center of a movie sorely in need of some conscience. Already a gifted comic actor—his
Saturday Night Live appearances are now anticipated events—he proves himself able to go to a pitch-black place. Frankie, covered in tats, is less a gangsta with a heart of gold than a nice guy capable of doing some very bad shit—like every last one of the rabid pups in Alpha Dog.