Their Brain on Drugs

Cassavetes Jr. and Justin Timberlake team up for a real-life tale of killer potheads.

Saturday Night Live proved Justin Timberlake (left) can act.
Saturday Night Live proved Justin Timberlake (left) can act.
At face value, Alpha Dog -- based on a real-life story that's still waiting for its ending -- plays like an amped-up, drugged-out episode of Dragnet: In 2000, a gang of SoCal kids kidnapped and murdered 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, a soft-spoken boy from the San Fernando Valley who dreamed of becoming a rabbi and was sacrificed as payment for his older half-brother's drug debt -- a measly $1,200. Four teens were convicted for the murder; the ringleader, a teeny Tony Montana with the real-life moniker of Jesse James Hollywood, escaped to Brazil, where he was arrested in 2005.

Hollywood now awaits trial, and his attorney has tried to block the release of Alpha Dog, claiming it convicts his client before he's had the chance to prove his innocence. (This despite the fact that Hollywood, a Dateline regular, has been convicted in prime time more than once.) The movie, which premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, is getting a negligible release as it is -- a shove into the January dumping ground, where nothing survives for long. It deserves better.

Alpha Dog is a guilty pleasure -- which is to say it elicits the occasional choking laugh, even as it tells a story the audience going in likely knows doesn't have a chance of ending happily. Nick Cassavetes, the writer and director who prepped for the movie by poring over off-limits files leaked by the case's prosecutor, stages much of his tragedy as though it were a comedy of errors -- the plans of dumb-ass punks gone awry.

Hollywood, here named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), is after all, not a great criminal mastermind, but merely a baby-faced punk who deals weed to spoiled Valley girls and their hip-hopped-up boyfriends. Truelove has his posse, and they're as threatening as any hallway gang at your average prep school: Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy), a subservient clown who suffers Johnny's abuse; Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), a swaggering sidekick clad in tank tops to display his tats; and other clods who come and go like nitwits clambering for their spot at the cool kids' lunch table. No way they could kill a kid, not these wake-and-bakers.

That's especially evident when Johnny confronts Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a self-hating Hebrew covered in swastikas, who owes drug dough. Theirs is a mighty tussle, one of those back-patio-door-smashing-into-the-swimming-pool brawls you only see in the movies -- choreographed down to the last shard of broken glass. Guns are drawn, threats made; someone's gonna wind up dead. Only, not so much. These punks don't have it in 'em. So they go their separate ways, prank each other, threaten each other, break each other's shit -- nothing that remotely suggests what's coming for Jake's surrogate, Zack (Anton Yelchin, in the Nicholas role).

Cassavetes' story isn't simply about boys and girls gone wild, but also about the parents who allow it to happen -- even encourage it, in the case of Sonny Truelove (a haggard Bruce Willis, outfitted with a crooked hairpiece), who's most likely the source of his kid's product. The parents in Alpha Dog are either doped-up imbeciles wearing plastic grins, absentee assholes waving the occasional iron fist, or both. Cassavetes has made a nasty, grim Southern California version of a Charlie Brown special, in which the adults might as well speak in that wah-wah-wah monotone. They allow their kids free rein -- to the point where Frankie grows a forest of marijuana out by the old man's pool, and another girl's mom can't talk to her because she's too busy getting laid and too wacked out on Ecstasy.

Cassavetes, cut loose after tethering himself to the old-fashioned, ham-handed romance of The Notebook, digs his new role as New Journalist, laying out a horrific tale of suburban indulgence gone wrong. He's so into the movie that he put himself in the movie: That's his voice you hear on the soundtrack, as the interviewer asking folks about their roles in Johnny's life and Zack's death. Cassavetes gets overly enthusiastic with the docudrama form at times -- lots of split-screen, in an attempt to make Alpha Dog play like some seedy '70s crime drama -- but you're tempted to forgive his excesses because the guy knows tension. How better to ram home the horrific consequences than by building up the boys' actions as little more than rough-and-tumble fun?

And if nothing else, Alpha Dog's worth a look for the performance of Timberlake, the moral center of a movie sorely in need of some conscience. Already a gifted comic actor -- his Saturday Night Live appearances are now anticipated events -- he proves himself able to go to a pitch-black place. Frankie is less a gangsta with a heart of gold than a nice guy capable of doing some very bad shit -- like every last one of the rabid pups in Alpha Dog.