Alpha Dog

or How To Not Let Yourself Be Distracted By A Horrible Wig

….. by TeeJay and Sisterdebmac

Freddy vs. Jason

The Plot

SPOILER WARNING!! The following review contains heavy spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, skip down to The Character.


….. by Sisterdebmac

Screening occurred on 11/14/06 at University Of Georgia’s Tate Theatre with Nick Cassavetes in attendance.

The first images you see in this film are home movies of the characters as normal, little children. But you already know going in that what happens to them is not normal behavior. It’s an interesting choice, made more interesting by the fact that some of the actors provided the director with their own actual home movies to use in the film. It’s pretty hard not to recognize little Anton Yelchin as soon as you see his big, innocent eyes onscreen. The voice-over at this point tells you that most of these boys grew up together, played little league together. Their lives seem as average as anyone else’s.

But cut to present day and you see that these young lives have gone off the rails. We enter a world where gangs of teenage boys live in big houses, drive expensive cars and have free reign to do as they please. The gang we meet — led by Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) — sells pot to finance their lavish lifestyle. There’s no parenting, no adult supervision. Unless you count Johnny’s father (Bruce Willis), their main weed supplier. Or Frankie’s father, a weed-cultivating over-grown party boy.

Things get ugly for Johnny when he tries to call in a marker. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) owes Johnny $1200 for a dope deal that went bad and he can’t come up with it soon enough to suit Johnny. A fight ensues, threats are made and it becomes a battle of wills between these two headstrong, drug-addled characters.

Into this world, stumbles Jake’s little brother, Zach (Yelchin). At 15, he’s no stranger to the bong and he idolizes his dangerously troubled older brother. Even without what happens, it was probably only a matter of time before Jake and Zach’s worlds would collide.

The feud between Johnny and Jake escalates when Jake breaks into Johnny’s house, steals his TV and takes a dump on his living room carpet. Yes, you read that right. It wigs Johnny out to the point where he immediately packs up his stuff and moves out.

That afternoon, Zach slips out his window and takes off on his own, after a fight with his parents. And who should cruise by but Johnny and a couple of his boys, including Frankie (Justin Timberlake). They recognize Zach as Jake’s brother and without giving it a moment’s thought, they grab Zach up and throw him in their van. But they really have no idea what they’re doing.

Having no home to go to anymore, Johnny parades Zach around from one lowlife crash pad to another, barely bothering to conceal the fact that the kid is a hostage. As Frankie puts it, when he tells his hanger-on buddy, Keith (Chris Marquette) what’s going on, Johnny’s holding the kid as a marker until Jake pays his debt.

While Johnny tries to find Jake and arrange a trade — the kid for the cash — Frankie and Keith introduce him to their favorite pastimes, getting stoned and partying with chicks. Zach takes to it all like a starving man at a feast.

Meanwhile, Zach’s parents, and finally Jake, are desperately trying to find out where the kid went. They get the police involved, tack up missing posters. They even stop fighting with each other for five seconds in their worry about Zach.

And Johnny’s beginning to get panicky about the situation, enough that he decides to consult his lawyer. Not too bright of the lawyer to tell his client that kidnapping means life imprisonment. From that moment on, the wheels are turning in Johnny’s twisted mind. The kid has to be taken care of.

Despite the fact that Zach is having a blast partying with the guys and falling into a liaison with not one, but two girls (at the same time), Johnny thinks he’s a liability. He asks Frankie, hypothetically of course, what he would do if Johnny offered him $2500 to kill the kid. Frankie is appalled. He has taken a liking to Zach and he’s sure the kid would never rat them out.

Johnny pretends the whole thing is a joke, and Frankie accepts that. But as Johnny hits up his slavishly devoted lap-dog, Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) to do the deed, Frankie begins to express worry for Zach’s safety and actually tries to let him go. Zach’s having too much fun. He won’t leave Frankie.

Before long, Elvis takes up the mantle for Johnny and begins organizing Zach’s murder. He tricks Keith into helping and then dupes Frankie too, saying they’re just going to drive the kid home.

It all ends up in a conflagration that finds Zach tearfully begging Frankie not to let Elvis hurt him, and Frankie tearfully trying to calm him down with assurances that it’s all a game. Keith takes off, wanting no part in what’s about to happen. Elvis coldly executes Johnny’s wishes in a shocking moment that made the row of girls behind me in the theatre scream like they were watching a slasher film.

Zach’s body is found the very next day, in a shallow grave right beside a jogging trail. Johnny goes on the lam with his girlfriend, Angela (Olivia Wilde) and they manage to elude the police for a while. But after a fight in a cheap motel room, Angela is busted while Johnny watches from across the street. As the others are arrested, Johnny flees the country. He will not be caught for five years.

It’s well-known that Alpha Dog is based on the case of the infamous Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest person ever to make the FBI’s most-wanted list. It is also well-known that since the capture of JJH, the courts have been trying to block the release of the film for fear that it might hurt Jesse’s chances for a fair trial. These issues have stalled the movie for nearly two years but it is now getting a reasonably wide release from Universal Pictures — 1,000 screens on 1/12/07.

There have been countless rumors about the film and its content. Most of outrageous and completely unfounded. Let’s dispel a few of them here:

1) RUMOR: There is extensive full-frontal nudity by all the male stars of the film.

FACT: A few of the girls bare their breasts and Emile Hirsch and Anton Yelchin bare their butts. That is absolutely the extent of it.

2) RUMOR: There is endless, wall-to-wall drug use in the film.

FACT: There is a lot of pot-smoking and drinking, but you’ll see more of that in an episode of Weeds than you do in this movie.

3) RUMOR: The film makes light of the murder of an innocent child by showing him partying with his captors.

FACT: The film never makes light of anything. It simply shows what happened and allows viewers to make up their own minds. And Stockholm Syndrome is a very real thing. So is the fact that the young man on which the kid is based was no stranger to drugs and alcohol before he ever met these guys.

4) RUMOR: There is constant, wall-to-wall hardcore sex in the film.

FACT: There are three brief sex scenes in the approximately two-hour length of the film. And while one of them is a bit disturbing, the participants are not even the “bad characters”.

5) RUMOR: The violence and language are gratuitous and over-the-top.

FACT: Please. The language is no worse than your average R-rated crime drama and the violence is only gruesome at the climax, which is as it should be in order to show the horror of what really happened. If you’ve ever seen any Tarrantino film, this will seem like a Hallmark movie to you.

6) RUMOR: Justin Timberlake ruins the movie by being a non-pro actor.

FACT: I’m no fan. But he’s actually very effective in the role of nice-guy, Frankie. You get the feeling that if he wasn’t mixed up with these boys, he’d be an all right kid.

As for my personal impressions of the film, I think it’s very well-made and the ensemble cast is very strong. It’s a depressing film in the end as all roads lead to the inevitable. But it is also an energetic and fascinating look into a world most of us will never experience, thank God. I do plan to see it again.

I confess to being distracted by the presence of my favorite young actor, Chris Marquette. When he was onscreen no one else existed for me. So to be really fair in my assessment, I will have to see it again and try to focus more on everything else.

There’s a great deal going on, too many characters to really keep track of, and the pace is very fast. If you miss something, too bad. You’re not likely to have a chance to revisit it for an explanation later. Like a lot of films that take you inside a strange landscape, you’re expected to know enough going in to be able to keep up. Chances are, there will be dialog that sails over your head, or events that happen too quickly to fully grasp. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something to be said for movies that are so chock full of people and events that they require repeat viewing. Those are usually my favorite films, in fact. There’s no doubt that I will one day own the DVD of Alpha Dog.

The Character

….. by Sisterdebmac

Keith Stratten — party-boy hanger-on. A friend of Frankie’s (Justin Timberlake) who has the misfortune of hanging with the wrong guys on the wrong night. Keith is a laid-back, goofy stoner who doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body. He pretty much lives for the party. Most of his scenes involve him being kinda silly. In the end, he’s pulled into the murder but he doesn’t actively participate.

The look, as we all know, is grungy-hippie-skater-dude. He’s got long, stringy hair and seems to have no regard for his clothes. Chris told us the kid’s supposed to pay no attention to his hygiene, so I think it’s safe to say he probably smells bad. Not someone I’d want to spend much time with.

Well, until he takes off his shirt. Then you’ll see black tattoos on his chest and low-slung pants and it all just works somehow. Quite a different look for Chris. He reminds me of the glory days of a young Chris Robinson fronting The Black Crowes.

The Co-Stars

….. by TeeJay

Quite a lot of big names in this one: among others Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake and Ben Foster. Interesting to mention is that Chris worked together with Anton Yelchin in Alpha Dog and would work with him again on Huff in 2006 when he did a guest role in three episodes of the Showtime TV series.

The Moments

….. by Sisterdebmac

In his very first scene, Keith makes some hilariously obscene gestures we’ve never seen the like of from Chris before.

The naked torso scene at the party.

The scene at the climax between Chris and Anton Yelchin when Keith refuses to participate in the murder.


….. by TeeJay

Unfortunately, Universal never released a special edition, even though Nick Cassavetes has said he has a lot of material that would be worth putting in the special features. As it is, there is only a one-disc edition that has exactly two special features: A Cautionary Tale (10-minute Making Of) and a Witness Timeline (text and photos only). Chris isn’t in any of them.

The Trivia

….. by TeeJay

When Sisterdebmac and TeeJay interviewed Chris for the website in 2006 and asked him with whom he would want to work with if he had the choice, Nick Cassavetes’ name fell in a heartbeat. Chris said he has a lot of respect for him: “You know, there’s one person I have had a chance to work with that I would work with forever for the rest of my life, like, only if I had the option, is Nick Cassavetes, the guy who did Alpha Dog. If I could just do his movies for the rest of my life, I’d be happy. Other than that, I don’t know. He’s the best actor’s director I’ve ever worked with, by a long shot.”

Interestingly, Chris had a line in the movie Just Friends, where he had to say “The Notebook‘s so gay.” We wondered how Nick might feel about that, seeing how The Notebook is a Nick Cassavetes movie. We already know how Chris feels about it, because he told us, “It was awesome. It was great. I read the Just Friends script and I said, that’s awesome.”

As to the horrible wig that Chris sports in this movie, this was what Chris had to say about it: “Oh, the wig! Oh yeah. They just wanted me greasy and dirty, like, where I was like a kid who had no hygiene, just didn’t care. You know, so it was like, all right, well, obviously he hasn’t cut his hair in a couple of months so… It was like at first I did, like, slicking my hair back and then they looked at me and they were like, “Nah, too Guido.” And I was, OK. I had short hair, yeah. Well, no, not quite short. I was doing Joan of Arcadia at the same time, so it was toward the end when they let me start cutting my hair a little bit more (the end of season one). So, it was a bit shorter, and then they put in extensions down to here (indicates past shoulder length). And it just looked weird. Like I just looked really weird, and it was like, ‘Nah, you kinda look like a girl.’

“So we thought about it. Then, a couple of days before we started shooting, they said what are we gonna do? And I was like, I don’t know. So they said, what about long hair down to here (indicates what it eventually came to look like)? And I was just like, I was totally against it, you have no idea. I was just like, on the inside, ‘I can’t do this. It’s gonna be bad. It’s gonna be terrible, I’m gonna look like crap in the movie. It’ll be terrible.’ And then, for some reason, it totally worked. It was just amazing.”

The Links

….. Official website
….. Movie trailer
….. Red carpet interview with Chris at the premiere (Jan. 07)
….. Stills and screencaps from the movie
….. Discussion about the movie on the message board ::: [ thread 1 ]  [ thread 2 ]