Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Emile Hirsch, Christopher Marquette, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Willis
Director: Nick Cassavettes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: May 1, 2007

ďYou canít just take a kid and have no one notice.Ē


Film ***1/2

Itís been quite a rough road for the film Alpha Dog. When it premiered with a strong level of buzz at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, it seemed destined to be one of the biggest independent film successes of the year. But the filmmakers and distributors found themselves in an unexpected position soon thereafter.

The film is a depiction of a crime that took place in 1999. As the film was in production, the real life case was about to head to trial. The lawyers defending the lead suspect were doing everything in their power to keep the film from seeing the light of day, fearing that it would further damage the defendant. Originally set for a spring 2006 release, and under another distributor, the film was actually dropped by the first studio, which didnít want to get caught in the legal fiasco.

Thankfully, another studio came to the filmís rescue and nearly a year later Alpha Dog had finally landed in theaters. And Iím glad that it got its time in the theaters because the story it tells is one that people should discover. Not since Larry Clarkís Bully has there been a more devastating true-life story involving reckless young teens captured on film in a most uncompromising way.

The film is a grim, fact based depiction of events that would lead to a most horrific crime, one involving a group of young teens in L.A. The group in question is that of privileged kids who engage in illegal behavior, attempting to live as close as they can to the gangsta lifestyle. The hotheaded actions of the ringleader, drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), are what cause everything to spiral way out of control.

When Johnny learns that a frequent buyer, Jake (Ben Foster), canít seem to pay up, he decides to take things one-step further. How far? Buy kidnapping Jakeís younger brother, Zach (Anton Yelchin). Johnny hopes that the spontaneous action will force Jake to come up with the money faster. What he and his associates, including Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), donít realize is the serious consequences of what has been done.

Written and directed with forceful passion by Nick Cassavettes, Alpha Dog is a film that leaves a brutal impact by its finish. What starts out as kids messing around and feeling untouchable soon gets more serious and horrific by the closing moments. If youíre familiar with the actual crime upon which the film is based, then you already know that things do not end well. And even if you know the outcome, the film still leaves you stunned and heartbroken.

The cast of Alpha Dog is one of the finer ensembles of young actors to be presented in quite sometime. And the standout of the crowd is Justin Timberlake as the member of Johnnyís crew who partakes in the kidnapping against his will. Timberlake shows true screen charisma from beginning to end and makes one of the most engaging transitions from music to acting that Iíve ever seen. Emile Hirsch is thoroughly convincing as the not-too-bright criminal mastermind, as is Ben Foster as his drug crazed nemesis. But itís Anton Yelchinís performance as the kidnap victim that will do nothing short of break your heart. And the film also includes strong supporting work from Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone, both of whom bravely did the film for no money at all.

The story isnít a happy one and the fact that it actually happened makes it even more depressing, but Alpha Dog is a riveting cautionary tale that you wonít be able to shake from your mind long after you see it. Nick Cassavettes took a risk making this controversial film, and he was the right director for the job as the story itself clearly struck him on a personal level.

This is a film of a real life tragedy that deserves to be discovered by everyone.

Video ****

Universalís anamorphic presentation is top notch every step of the way. The image quality is nothing but a clear and consistently crisp picture with an amazing level of detail and color. Both daylight and darkly lit sequences come out beautifully.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix adds quite a bit to this mostly dialogue driven film. Thereís a heavy dose of mostly hip hop music played in just about every scene. Various set pieces allow for impressive background noise to be picked up as well. And the intense conclusion does deliver some impact audio wise as well.

Features *1/2

I only wish there was more in the extras department, but Iím convinced that the filmmakers may have gotten in more legal trouble if they were to disclose any further information. I also wish Mr. Cassavettes had offered a commentary track because I know he wouldíve had a lot to say about the making of the film. In the meantime, we have a ten minute featurette titled ďA Cautionary Tale: The Making of Alpha DogĒ and a Witness Timeline, which displays profiles on the many witnesses of the crime and pinpoints their appearance in the film.


Alpha Dog is a most important film, and one that will leave a huge impact on you whether or not you know the story on which itís based. Wonderfully acted by its cast and terrifically written and directed by Nick Cassavettes, this is a powerful film that you canít afford to miss.

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