By the end of every Sundance Film Festival, you see one film – or more than one – where the reaction isn't just against the film, but against the Festival itself: What movie didn't get the chance to debut at the festival because this movie took up a slot in the Premieres Category? For me, this year, that film was Alpha Dog – based on the true tale of a young drug dealer and thug in L.A. who spent five years on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes, Alpha Dog is one in a long line of sun-splashed, kids-in-trouble crime films where a group of young, aimless, drugged-up and violent boys have fun, fun, fun 'till daddy takes their gun away.
Johnny (Emile Hirsch) has a devoted crew of hangers-on and foot soldiers, lifelong friends and flunkies who owe him money; there's also the possibility that Johnny is just a convenient cut-out level of protection for his dad Sonny (Bruce Willis) and the family criminal enterprise. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) owes Johnny money, and the tit-for-tat provocations and retaliations of trying to figure out how, or if, the debt will be paid culminate in Johnny's boys impulsively picking Jake's little brother Zach (Anton Yelchin) off the street. This isn't just a bad idea: It's a Federal Felony, and Johnny and his right-hand buddy Frankie (Justin Timberlake) are trying to see through their perpetually stoned haze to find an end result for this sequence of events that doesn't leave them dead or in jail.
The second we see Frankie and Jake's bodies spiderwebbed with tattoos in a riot of colors, we understand that long-term thinking is not among these kid's skill sets. But watching a group of arrogant juvenile offenders fail to understand mortality or morality is a movie we've seen far too many times before. In fact, Cassavetes keeps the pacing of the movie at a sluggish pace. As soon as we start seeing titles on screen labeling bystanders as "Witness #1," we're waiting for bad things to happen … and that wait becomes interminable.
There is some good acting in Alpha Dog – specifically from Timberlake and Yelchin. It's easy to laugh at Timberlake the second he's on-screen thanks to his public persona as a lightweight wanna-be ; the wisdom of the film comes as Cassavetes has Timberlake play a lightweight wanna-be, a callow boy who can joke about murder until he's realized too late he's about to do it. Yelchin is also impressive, capturing Zack's arc from initial worry to enjoying his kidnapped state to realizing that his new friendship with Frankie is meaningless in the context of deepening consequences. Alpha Dog promises social commentary and stylish violence, but its bite and bark are both familiar to mean anything to viewers.
Others on Alpha Dog: Variety's Justin Chang calls it "standard-issue tabloid fare pimped out as a serious true-crime saga" that "recklessly blurs the line between reconstruction and reality in ways that are admittedly interesting, if more than a little artistically suspect." Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt describes the film as "a well-made ensemble movie in which actors take chances with uncomfortably repulsive characters or roles unlike any previous performances."