The root cause of the many miscalculations in Nick Cassavetes Alpha Dog is its compulsion to present stylisation as a ready substitute for grit. In a film that leers and jeers at its own misguided participants, it obfuscates its own condescension by gratifying itself over the steady slope of over-indulged nihilism that lurks behind each frame. Eschewing the need to be riveting, it goes straight for exhilaration, a callow if not energetic sense of purpose thats sorely needed in its opening section.
It slots itself snugly in the catalogue of sordid stories about suburban mayhem that values the palpitations of pushing the limits of iniquity and routinely points its heavy finger right at the enabling parental units, privileged boredom and the swaggering manipulation of violent cinema an ironic commentary to be fair, just not with that many pangs of conscious guilt. Alpha Dog doesnt appear to be driven by the urge to explore these facets of impetus but a fetishistic fraternisation with the bewildering violent streak in its insular young, hard-bodied reprobates that starts to border on Larry Clarkesque lasciviousness.
Theres a line of reality thats consistently blurred in an attempt to moisten the dry constructs of a docu-drama (inspired by the exploits of the youngest suspect ever to make the FBI's most wanted list in the 20 year-old Jesse James Hollywood) by its deranged reconstructions of the characters pathological commitments to make bad choices worst and the pleasure taken from its moral corruption and effused decadence. Ben Fosters unhinged Jewish neo-nazi, Jake Mazursky, channels less of Ryan Goslings troubled idiosyncratic turn in The Believer but a tempestuous brat struggling with the implications of his younger brother, Zacks (Anton Yelchin) abduction by mini-kingpin Johnny Truelove (an unconvincingly facile Emile Hirsch). And in Zack, Cassavetes finds his most honest character that unfortunately goes misused in his insistence of using Justin Timberlakes marquee-hogging role as a marketing springboard and as the unearned emotional centre of the film. To Timberlakes credit, he seems to have found a familiar niche by channelling a self-conscious and culturally confused poseur with a self-pitying motivation as Trueloves erstwhile lieutenant, Frankie Ballenbacher.
While Frankie discovers tangential guilt, Zack discovers temptation. Yelchins hangdog expressions slowly transform into guilty pleasures of binging on sex and drugs while being in the custody of Trueloves ragtag crew of sheeps. While never uninteresting, he's largely a passive personality until the films strongest moment. The story might have achieved a stark poignancy if it had remained inside Zacks impressionable psyche, pondering the moral ebb and flow of the unfolding events and circumstances instead of fleeting between the Truelove crew and Jakes incomprehensible rage.
Alpha Dog finds it necessary to ask how did matters escalate as far as it did but the writings on cautionary tales (and Scarface posters) were on the wall as soon as hedonism becomes an appropriate response for listlessness. Between the hysterics of teenage malaise and mimicry of soulless genre tropes, Cassavetes film never carries with it a moral obligation but panders to personal tragedies (seen through an unfairly caricatured Sharon Stone as a grieving parent) without acknowledging the accountability of individual actions.