The release of Alpha Dog was mired in controversy. The real-life murder-kidnapping that inspired it was still being tried in courts, and the deputy district attorney's role as a consultant on the film placed the trial in a state of legal limbo. That's too bad, because this ancillary fact -- along with the studio dumping it in January -- tended to obscure just how good Nick Cassavetes' film really is. Free from the exploitative qualities of Larry Clark's Kids, Alpha Dog shows the absolutely true transmogrification of bored suburban youths into drug kingpins and other reckless associates. At the same time -- and this is key -- it keeps its finger on their childlike humanity, which they retain even as their posturing forces them down the opposite path. Potentially complicating the message of Alpha Dog is the fact that it must partially glamorize its characters' portable poolside party lifestyle, because this is how the kidnapping victim -- who thinks he's undergoing a great moment of awakening -- experiences their excesses himself. But by film's end, Cassavetes, in his most mature film to date, has driven home the consequences of those excesses with unambiguous clarity. A key asset is his cast. Some of the most impressive, and in some cases underrated, young actors of their generation have gathered for Alpha Dog, including Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster as the feuding badasses who escalate the conflict. Foster, in particular, burns with an apoplexy we've never seen from him, wiry and intense as he neutralizes a dozen partygoers in his quest to find his brother. But two less likely suspects actually carry this film: singer Justin Timberlake, whose utter naturalism disarms the audience in every scene, and Anton Yelchin, whose innocent first tastes of the lifestyle are all the more touching, given the impending doom they carry with them.
by Derek Armstrong review