Rich kids get loaded on drugs. Bored, unaffected and stinking with dad’s cash, they have the disposable income and all the free time they need to toke, snort and pill-pop their way through adolescence. Except that in The Notebook director Nick Cassavetes’ film, it’s the privileged who also run the dope empires, dealing to their kind, and fuck the consequence.
Playing like an extended recreation of Crimewatch in which everyone knows whodunnit, Alpha Dog is a fictionalised recreation of the real-life August 2000 kidnap of 15-year-old Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin). His brother Jake (Ben Foster) has been up to narcotic-fuelled buffoonery and, fuming at a raid on his gaff, drug-gang ringleader Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) orders Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) and Frankie (Justin Timberlake) to grab Zack as revenge. Jake must pay, or baby bro gets it.
The names have changed, but the inaction remains the same. Unbeknown to his fretting family, Zack’s having a whale of time during his kidnap; boozing and screwing his way through a hedonistic LA effortlessly captured by a director who no doubt enjoyed a similar Hollywood upbringing. Aided by visual gimmicks (an on-screen tally adds up witnesses), Alpha Dog feels fresh and relaxed, taking time to tell a story its own way.
Emphasis on the kidnap’s minute-by-minute detail inevitably sacrifices some remarkable facts. The real Truelove was one Jesse James Hollywood (who became the youngest ever FBI Most Wanted) but his motives for kidnap are flippantly dealt with here. He’s an intelligent man, in control, but with so much time spent on the living-it-up hostage, Truelove comes across as a daft decision-maker. Certainly not the sort of man who would go on to evade Fed capture for five years.
But that’s a different film. And, thankfully, Alpha Dog avoids slipping too far down the Domino slide, where riveting real-life events are marginalised in favour of whizzbang set-pieces. Instead, we get magnetic performances. Timberlake, Hatosy and Hirsch all excel, displaying the right blend of out-of-their-depth panic with beauty of youth. But it’s newcomer Yelchin who holds it all together, thoroughly believable as a kid lapping up his days with the big boys.
At almost two hours Cassavetes certainly spends too long getting not particularly far, but strap in for the slow-ride and you’ll find one Dog with considerable bark, if not much bite.