With harrowing intensity, Alpha Dog dramatizes one of the most tragically notorious murders in recent history. Ripped from the headlines, writer-director Nick Cassavetes' flawed but riveting crime drama (a polar opposite to his previous film, the romantic hit The Notebook) is based on the real-life case of Jesse James Hollywood, a drug dealer in California's San Gabriel Valley who, in 2000, became one of the youngest men to appear on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Names and details have been changed, but the criminal circumstances remain the same: With family links to organized crime, Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is on the warpath against Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a sleazebag addict who owes him money. Fate intervenes when Johnny and his stoner pals including Frankie (Justin Timberlake) encounter Jake's 15-year-old half-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) and hold him as collateral until Jake pays his debts. What begins as a casual, seemingly harmless situation escalates into a crisis of capital crime, as Alpha Dog employs split-screen, docudrama, and mock-documentary interviews to chronicle a tragic tailspin of reckless events and lawless behavior.
Cassavetes himself became part of the real-life drama when prosecutors (hoping to locate then-fugitive Jesse James Hollywood, who was captured in 2005) gave him legally controversial access to their case files. Alpha Dog clearly benefits from this inside information, and while the film's grueling depiction of underage squalor (including rampant drug and alcohol abuse) is inevitably off-putting and at least partially exploitative, there's no denying that Cassavetes has worked wonders with a well-chosen ensemble cast including Timberlake, who contrasts his music-industry stardom with a convincing performance as a likable, not-too-bright party animal who quickly gets in over his head. The film is ultimately compromised by Cassavetes' ambitious attempt to cover too much dramatic territory, but like his father John before him, he demonstrates a remarkable skill with actors (including Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis, and Harry Dean Stanton in supporting roles), and Alpha Dog is full of powerful, dangerous moments that aren't easily forgotten. --Jeff Shannon