A decade on, Alpha Dog is most notable for establishing both Justin Timberlake and Anton Yelchin as respectable actors. This plucked-from-the-headlines crime picture put Timberlake in the role of a charismatic kidnapper and Yelchin as his fifteen-year-old abductee, and they both do great work. It’s worth remembering, though, that Alpha Dog also stands as a reminder of a time when Nick Cassavetes showed genuine potential as a director; nowadays he’s in charge of hastily-shovelled dreck like The Other Woman.
The best thing about Alpha Dog is how balanced it is. That’s true of the aforementioned actors: Timberlake balances his likeable exterior with a moral rottenness, while Yelchin walks the line between teenage swagger and teenager insecurity perfectly. But it’s easy to imagine a version of this film – based on a real-life kidnapping and murder in suburban California – that either swung too far towards comedy, playing up the macho posturing of these young drug dealers …or too far towards drama, with an over-emphasis on the tragedy that ensued.
For most of his film, Cassavetes balances those two approaches carefully. It’s regularly funny, with a lazy sun-baked charm, but we’re never allowed to forget the grim consequences at the end of the tale – best demonstrated by the way newcomers to the storyline are granted a “Witness number,” continually reminding the audience of the real-life criminal case that inspired the story. He maintains a delicate equilibrium of tone between the oblivious confidence of young men and the cautious realism of their parents.
Those parents are constant figures within this world of empty threats, petty drugged deals and pistol-waving. Where many such films tend to reduce parents to non-entities, deliberately or otherwise (I’m thinking specifically of Sofia Coppola’s inferior The Bling Ring here), Alpha Dog reflects upon how parents can and can’t influence their children. Again and again, we see our characters turn to their parents – played by the likes of Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis – for advice, or money, or drugs, and the responses they receive tell us a great deal about the people they’ve become. The depiction of these foolhardy young men – who treat kidnapping more as a game than a serious offence – is carefully balanced; their presentation evoking sympathy and revulsion in equal measure.
Cassavetes’ judgment fails in Alpha Dog’s denouement, however, with that balance collapsing into an uneven final act. After the heavily-foreshadowed murder, we’re treated to a clumsy mix of intertitles detailing the prison sentences given to the perpetrators; poorly edited and mostly pointless interview re-enactments (including some spectacularly terrible old age make up caked on Sharon Stone’s face); and a totally superfluous sex scene between Emile Hirsch and Olivia Wilde. This inept conclusion blunts much of the emotional impact of the film while heralding Cassavetes’ future mediocrities.