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As a guy with a 7-year-old son, the monster flicks and jump-out-and-gitcha movies don’t scare me nearly as much as CNN. Nearly every day, it seems, the news features yet another teen-age boy gone horribly wrong — kids so desperate to get money or respect or simply live up to their gangsta idols that they’re willing to play for blood.
Given that, no movie in recent memory has scared me as much as “Alpha Dog.” A brilliant and chilling look at a notorious California murder committed by a gang of teen-age thugs –- most of them from solid, middle-class homes — in the late 1990s, it’s enough to make me want to lock my kid in the closet and only feed him things flat enough to fit under the door.
Emile Hirsch plays Johnny Trulove, a fictionalized version of Jesse James Hollywood, who at age 20 became the youngest person ever included on the FBI’s Most-Wanted List after kidnapping and then ordering the murder of his rival’s 15-year-old brother over a petty drug debt. Like his real-life counterpart, Trulove is a teen-age drug kingpin by the age of 17. Supplied by his drug-dealer father, Sonny Trulove (Bruce Willis), Johnny has cultivated an elite clientele, dealing pot, coke and speed to the live-fast-die-young crowd of teen-age upper-crusters in L.A. His life of crime lets him live in style, with a pimped-out vintage convertible and a big bachelor pad in the Valley.
For muscle and middlemen, Trulove keeps on hand a number of young thugs. Among them is Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a burnout loser from a quiet, yours-mine-and-ours Jewish family. After Jake runs afoul of Johnny over a $1,200 debt, a fistfight leads to Mazursky trashing Trulove’s house, which ends up with Trulove and his crew looking to find Mazursky and rough him up. On the way to Mazursky’s house, they see his 15-year-old kid brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), a sheltered boy whose parents are desperate to keep him from heading down the path taken by his older brother. Consumed by anger, Trulove has his boys, including Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), grab Zack off the street and toss him in the back of the van.
Not knowing what to do with the kid now that they’ve got him, Trulove and his boys –- after a few tense and scary moments — take Zack back to their place and decide to hold him until Jake pays up. Too stoned and basically good-natured to keep up the tough-guy act, they soon untie Zack and make him one of their own, playing video games, drinking beer and smoking pot. Eventually, with more business to conduct, Trulove pawns the kid off on Frankie. Together, Frankie and Zack set off to Frankie’s father’s house in Palm Springs. There, they attend a series of house parties, and the naive Zack becomes one of the Lost Boys: drinking, smoking, and getting laid by two girls in the hottest game of “Marco Polo” in history. In the midst of all this, the bond between Zack and Frankie deepens, to the point that — when Frankie offers to let him escape — Zack refuses, not wanting to cause trouble for his new friend or his brother. With the boss soon back on the scene, Trulove and Frankie decide to offer the kid money and permission to hang with Trulove’s crew in exchange for him making up a story about running away. However, after Trulove phones his dad’s lawyer and hears that kidnapping will likely lead to a life term in prison for everyone involved, he sets in motion a plan that leads to a horrific and terrible end.
Though I’m generally skeptical of singers-turned-actors, Timberlake is great here as criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold Frankie. Though there’s a lot of great work by the young cast of “Alpha Dog,” Timberlake — especially when his character is forced to take part in violence against the boy he has come to respect and even love — turns in a performance that’s a real leap beyond most film newbies. Also amazing is Sharon Stone as Zack’s mother, Olivia Mazursky. Though Stone doesn’t get a lot of screen time, in what time she does get, she manages to simply nail her character’s soul to the wall, even donning a fat suit near the film’s end. It’s possibly her best work since “Casino.”
Meanwhile, director Nick Cassavetes works hard to instill “Alpha Dog” with a real sense of energy and foreboding, even in the most goofy, pot-scented moments of the film (something helped along by the fact that every time Zack meets a new person, there is a freeze frame, with the character’s name and the words “Witness” tacked on behind).
“Alpha Dog” nearly reaches the pathos and real-world tragedy of a gem like “Boys Don’t Cry.” The fact that you know how it all turns out is beside the point. In a case like this, the true question isn’t what happened, but how.
— David Koon