“Alpha Dog,” based on the life of Johnny Truelove, a small-time drug lord, opens on Truelove’s gang — a group of boys who seem to be living the life. They make a small fortune from their business, enjoying an endless supply of drugs, girls and shockingly careless parents. Truelove is played brilliantly by Emile Hirsch (“The Girl Next Door”). Hirsch commands the screen, effortlessly pulling off Truelove’s no-bullshit attitude toward everyone he encounters. The conflict begins after a drug addict fails to pay Truelove money that he owes him. Just days later, Truelove and a group of friends happen to see the addict’s brother, Zach, on the street. Without thought or consideration, Truelove decides to kidnap him out of revenge.
p. A rush of controversy surrounded the release of “Alpha Dog.” Since Truelove was just apprehended in 2005, after years on the FBI’s 10-most-wanted list, he has yet to be tried for his involvement in the crime. Truelove’s attorney requested to delay the film’s release, arguing that it might taint the jury pool. However, a judge denied the plea, allowing audiences across the country to enjoy this surprisingly creative and fascinating film.
p. At no point do the filmmakers attempt to portray Truelove as a smart criminal. In fact, the movie makes a mockery of the entire kidnapping plot and everyone involved. Following the kidnapping, each time someone sees Zach with any of Truelove’s friends, a witness count appears on the screen. Over a period of only three days, there are more than 50 witnesses to Truelove’s crime. That fact alone shows the gang’s complete lack of foresight. In fact, it takes Truelove two days to even realize that by taking the kid off the sidewalk and throwing him into a van, he could actually be charged for kidnapping.
p. The filmmakers create a convincing portrayal of how a simple choice can escalate into a mistake that can ruin a life. These boys aren’t saints, but they also don’t seem like the type of people who would be serving life sentences in prison. After their thoughtless decision to kidnap the teenager, Truelove and his friends develop a “no turning back” attitude, refusing to even consider the possibility of serving any jail time. Although it starts off as a simple payback scheme, three days later the boys realize they could face life in prison, even if the boy were returned unharmed. In a matter of days, Truelove goes from being a small-time drug dealer to one of the 10 most wanted criminals in the United States.
p. The film’s biggest surprise is Justin Timberlake’s impressive performance as Frankie Ballenbacher, Truelove’s best friend. It is often difficult for musicians to cross over into Hollywood, but Timberlake does it effortlessly. Critics will be hard-pressed to find fault with this former boy band member, since he essentially carries the movie. Ballenbacher seems to be the only character to show any hesitation toward the numerous crimes he and his friends commit.
p. Though his character is a clear accomplice, Timberlake’s performance draws both sympathy and understanding from the audience. While every other character follows Truelove’s orders without question, Frankie continues to fight back, refusing to accept that the only solution to their problem is murder. He gets caught up in a bad situation and is forced to suffer for his friends’ poor decisions.
p. The weakest performances were given by film veterans Bruce Willis (“Sin City”) and Sharon Stone (“Basic Instinct”). Truly, the film’s greatest strength stems from its cast of up-and-coming young actors. Along with Hirsch and Timberlake, Anton Yelchin (“Huff”), gives an incredible performance as Zach, the endearing victim. Despite being a new actor, he seems like a pro, creating a character who is able to walk the fine line between naïveté and carelessness. Despite his numerous opportunities to return home, Zach chooses to remain in the dangerous world of sex, drugs and what appears to be zero responsibility. While he knows that Truelove can’t just send him away, he fails to think about the next step. If they can’t let him go, what will they do with him? Yelchin becomes Zach, a boy who is clearly not dumb, yet remains completely oblivious to the plans that form around him.
p. As a character-driven film, “Alpha Dog” is entirely dependent on the actors’ abilities to convince the audience that their characters are not as guilty as they seem. The transition of each character from boy to criminal leaves the viewer mesmerized. It is a great success for any actor to be able to portray a character that commits such heinous crimes, yet still manages to elicit sympathy from an audience. In the end, it is up to us to decide who is to blame for the terrible events that surround the thoughtless kidnapping.