St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Film review

Reduced to animals

Alpha Dog exposes the dangers of pack mentality in this story of a crime that spiraled out of control.

By Marty Clear
Published January 11, 2007


There's plenty of power in Nick Cassavetes' controversial Alpha Dog, a fact-based tale of brutality and waste among a group of privileged South Florida teens.

But it's the pathos, not the violence, that leaves its mark. The young people here are, with a couple of exceptions, likable kids, scarred by too many drugs and too little moral guidance. Their lives are wasted, and ultimately ruined, as they realize they have involved themselves in a crime so serious that murder seems the only escape.

The film sparked a legal debate as prosecutors reportedly allowed Cassavetes wide access to case files - over the objections of defense attorneys for the real-life ringleader, who was on the lam at the time of filming. He has since been caught after several years on the FBI's most-wanted list.

The real-life story isn't all that gives Alpha Dog its impact. In fact, the obvious blurring of fact, conjecture and fiction dulls the effect of the story's roots.

But great performances by a number of young actors (most notably Justin Timberlake, who is confident, intense and believable) and a slew of established stars in supporting roles and cameos add immeasurable texture to Alpha Dog.

The story revolves around an aimless but privileged group of partiers, whose de facto leader is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a mid-level drug dealer who apparently learned his trade from watching Scarface. When one of his customers, a meth-pumped loser played by Ben Foster, fails to pay a debt, Truelove and his friends seek retaliation. They spot Foster's kid brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), walking along a street and grab him almost on a whim, planning to hold him as collateral.

Truelove's friends, basically decent people, adopt the kid into their group, treating him to endless partying and his first sexual encounter. They even offer to let him go, but he is caught up in the adolescent glamor of their scene, sure that his beloved older brother will come up with the money.

It dawns on the group that they could face life in prison for kidnapping. Truelove decides the only solution is to kill the kid, and his minions don't have enough backbone to refuse.

It's stark and sad, and Cassavetes makes sure our sympathies remain with Timberlake's character and the other Truelove hangers-on.

There are lots of little flaws (the semi-documentary style is awkward) and a couple of big ones. Most notable is a long and bizarre scene near the end in which the murder victim's mother (Sharon Stone), years after the crime, blubbers about how her life was ruined. Her performance in the rest of the film is excellent, but in that scene, it's laughable, and it gets no help from awful makeup and an ineptly executed fat suit.

The film, even though it's less than two hours, also drags a bit, and there's no reason the 15 minutes of mind-numbing partying couldn't have been trimmed.

The film is similar to the 2001 indie film Bully, also a fact-based tale of basically decent kids caught up in crime because of weakness and herd mentality.

But a harrowing climax and strong performances in Alpha Dog more than make up for any weaknesses. This likely will be seen as the movie that let Timberlake shake any vestiges of his boy-band image and as the breakout film for half a dozen young actors.

Marty Clear can be reached at



Alpha Dog

Grade: B+

Writer/director: Nick Cassavetes

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, Sharon Stone, Shawn Hatosy

Rating: R; pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity

Running time: 117 min.

[Last modified January 10, 2007, 09:59:29]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters