The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance! Today, I take a look at 2006’s Alpha Dog, which premiered, out of competition, at Sundance.
Sometimes, I suspect that I may be the only person who actually likes this movie.
Alpha Dog is a film about a group of stupid people who end up doing a terrible thing. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a 20 year-old living in Los Angeles. His father, Sonny (Bruce Willis) and his godfather, Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton), are both mob-connected and keep Johnny supplied with the drugs that Johnny then sells to his friends. It’s a pretty good deal for Johnny. He’s got a nice house and a group of friends who are willing to literally do anything for him. Johnny, after all, is the one who has the money.
When Johnny’s former best friend, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), fails to pay a drug debt, things quickly escalate. When Johnny refuses to accept even a partial payment, Jake responds by breaking into Johnny’s house and vandalizing the place. (Just what exactly Jake does, I’m not going to go into because it’s nasty. Seriously, burn that house down…) Johnny decides that the best way to force Jake to pay up is to kidnap Jake’s younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin, who is heartbreakingly good in this film).
It quickly turns out that Zack doesn’t mind being kidnapped. Everyone tells Zack not to worry about anything and that he’ll be set free as soon as Jake pays his debt. Zack decides to just enjoy his weekend. Since Johnny is better at ordering people to commit crimes than committing them himself, he tells his friend, Frankie (Justin Timberlake), to keep an eye on Zack.
And so it goes from there. While Johnny leaves town, Frankie introduces Zack to all of his friends. Everyone laughs about how Zack is “stolen boy.” Zack’s going to parties and having a good time. However, Johnny returns and reveals that he’s been doing some thinking, as well as talking to his lawyer. Regardless of whether Zack’s enjoying himself, both Johnny and Frankie could go to prison for kidnapping him. Frankie argues that Zack won’t tell anyone about what happened. Maybe they could just pay him off. Johnny thinks it might be easier to just have him killed. Frankie’s not a murderer but what about Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy)? Elvis is a loser who desperately wants to be a part of Johnny’s crew and he owes Johnny almost as much money as Jake does. How far would Elvis be willing to go?
(While this plays out, the film keeps a running tally of everyone who witnesses Zack not only being kidnapped but also held hostage. In the end, there were at least 32 witnesses but none of them said a word.)
Alpha Dog is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood and the murder of 15 year-old Nicholas Markowitz. Hollywood spent five years as a fugitive from justice, hiding out in Brazil and reportedly being protected by his wealthy family. He was arrested shortly before the Sundance premiere of Alpha Dog. Since it was filmed before Hollywood’s arrest and subsequent conviction, Alpha Dog changed his name to Johnny Truelove. Johnny Truelove is a good name but it’s nowhere near as memorable as Jesse James Hollywood.
Alpha Dog sticks close to the facts of the case, providing a disturbing portrait of a group of aimless wannabe gangsters who, insulated by money and privilege, ended up getting in over their heads and committing a terrible crime. Emile Hirsch gives one of his best performances as the sociopathic Johnny Truelove while Ben Foster is both frightening and, at times, sympathetic as Jake. Justin Timberlake is compelling as he wrestles with his conscience while Shawn Hatosy is properly loathsome as the type of idiot that everyone knows but wish they didn’t. The dearly missed Anton Yelchin is heartbreaking and poignant as Zack. And finally, there’s Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton doesn’t say a lot in this movie. Often times, he’s just hovering in the background. The moment when he reveals his true self is one of the best in the movie.
As I said, I sometimes feel as if I’m the only person who likes this movie. It got mixed reviews when it was released and, in the years since, it rarely seems to ever get mentioned in a positive context. Personally, I think it’s a well-done portrait of privilege, stupidity, and the lengths to which people will go to avoid taking a stand. In the end, no one escapes punishment but it’s the rich guy who, at the very least, gets to spend at least a few years enjoying his freedom in Brazil.
Previous Sundance Film Reviews: