Quite the departure from the old-fashioned sweetness of his prior film ("The Notebook"), "Alpha Dog" is an effort from writer/director Nick Cassavetes looking at drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), who is based on the real-life Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest man to ever be on the FBI's most wanted list. Johnny and pals Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake) and Elvis Schmidt (Shaun Hatosy) spend their days hanging out and getting high with their girlfriends.
When one of Truelove's dealers named Jake (Ben Foster) won't settle with him on a debt, things quickly spiral out of control. After Jake vandalizes his house, Truelove and his pals spot his younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin) and decide to kidnap him and hold him as a "marker" until Jake pays his debt. The younger brother is initially thrilled to be on a "vacation" from the parents he's unhappy with, but too much time begins to pass, the police become involved and Jake makes it his mission to find his brother. While Zack befriends his captors - he becomes an unlikely pal to Frankie - at first, Johnny eventually comes to the conclusion that Zack has become a liability.
"Alpha Dog" manages to build a strong sense of impending disaster (even though we know what's coming - characters are labeled with what would be their eventual witness number - the film's horrifying and tragic final moments are still shocking and disturbing) and the film's performances are - with a few exceptions - quite good.
Yelchin creates a great, subtle portrayal of a kid who gets sucked into the world (parties, weed and girls) of these kids. When things take a turn for the worse late in the film, Yelchin is heartbreaking. Timberlake is also superb as a kid who doesn't realize how far things have really gone until it's too late. On the other hand, Harry Dean Stanton's given little to do and Bruce Willis doesn't make much of an impression as Truelove's father, who also acts as his supplier. Sharon Stone is good, although the decision to put her in a fat suit for her final scene seems unnecessary and the suit is so, well..."suity" that it's distracting. Foster goes over-the-top, but I suppose it works for the character.
"Alpha Dog" does act as a powerful cautionary tale, showing kids who have simply lost their way, falling in with a bad crowd because they have enough money to do whatever they want and parents who are more concerned, in most cases, with living their own lives and enjoying their own excesses. The kids are to blame, but one wonders if the parents ever cared in the first place. In one scene, a girl (Dominique Swain, good in the role) runs to talk to her mother after finding out about the situation with Zack, but her high mother slams the door.
"Alpha Dog" does work better than the similar "The Chumscrubber", but it does have a few concerns, such as the lack of focus - the picture runs long at just under 2 hours, and - while never boring - could have been tighter. There's a lot of little moments here that don't seem necessary (especially in the last 10-15 minutes, which go on well past the point where the movie could have ended) and taking some of this material could have given the movie even more impact and quickened the pacing.
Flaws aside, "Alpha Dog" stands as a sad look at kids who have enough money and freedom to do whatever they want and choose to go down a terrible path until the consequences of their actions catch up with them. "Alpha Dog" has issues here-and-there, but certain scenes and a few of the performances work so well that they elevate the rest of the picture.
VIDEO: "Alpha Dog" is presented by Universal in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation quality was fairly good, although not without some problems on occasion. Sharpness and detail were passable, as while the picture never appeared exceptionally sharp or well-defined, it at least appeared crisp throughout a good portion of the film.
Flaws included some mild edge enhancement at times and some trace instances of artifacting. Otherwise, the image appeared clean, with no print flaws or other issues. Colors looked mostly on the subdued side, although this seemed to be the intent of the film. Overall, this was an average presentation, with some mild concerns.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.l presentation did open up a bit on occasion to allow the surrounds to offer some slight ambience or reinforcement of the music. Otherwise, the film's audio delivered exactly what one would expect - the film is dialogue-driven and so is the majority of the audio presentation. Audio quality is fine, with crisp dialogue and effects.
EXTRAS: "A Cautionary Tale: The Making of Alpha Dog" is a fairly brief featurette that provides an overview of the production, as the writer/director and cast discuss the characters, story, filming and their thoughts on the issues in the film. Given the running time, the documentary doesn't go into great depth, but the interviews are enjoyable and provide some insights. We also get a "Witness Timeline" featurette and promos for other titles from the studio. Nothing about the real-life story is offered here, although that may be due to legal issues.
Final Thoughts: "Alpha Dog" has stretches that seem unfocused and it could use some tightening. However, some of the film's performances are quite good and some moments work so well as to elevate some that don't. The DVD offers satisfactory audio/video quality, but minimal extras. A recommended rental.
The Film B