In August 2000, a 20-year-old drug dealer named Jesse James Hollywood kidnapped 15-year-old Nick Markowitz, the half-brother of a man who owed him a drug debt. Hollywood held the boy for a week (in which victim and villains partied together), then, in desperation, ordered his associates to murder Markowitz in the mountains near Goleta, Calif. Hollywood managed to elude capture for five years before being arrested in Brazil in March 2005. In January 2007, his trial is about to begin.
Alpha Dog is director Nick Cassavetes' carefully researched dramatic reenactment of the events surrounding this sordid story.
The story may be the same, but names have been changed. Onscreen, Hollywood morphs into Johnny Truelove, a young pot peddler living a life of wanton hedonism with his friends. Truelove is the "alpha dog" among his pack of friends whose primary pursuits are watching hip-hop videos, playing video games, drinking beer, smoking dope and having sex. Johnny's lieutenant is the big-talking Frankie Ballenbacher. Another important character among Johnny's retinue is Elvis Schmidt, an insecure pup who'll do anything to be inducted into Johnny's debauched inner circle.
Being the alpha means never backing down, never admitting defeat or fear. Enter one Jake Mazursky, a strung out, volatile—and violent—customer who owes Johnny $800. When Johnny refuses to give Jake time to round up the money, it ignites a powder keg of rapidly escalating conflict. Johnny lets Jake know what he thinks by shoving him through a glass table. Jake in turn trashes Johnny's house. So when Johnny, Frankie (and another of Johnny's goons) see Jake's half-brother, Zack, walking through a park, yanking him into their van seems a perfectly reasonable way to accelerate Jake's payment plan.
Zack is amiable, and he treats his kidnapping more like a slumber party than an abduction. And what a party it is, with Frankie giving the boy unceasing access to alcohol, marijuana and available young women. Frankie acts as Zack's delinquent chaperone, moving him from party to party as Johnny tries to figure out his next step. No one takes the kidnapping too seriously until Johnny learns that it could lead to life in prison—after which he hatches a brutal plan to deal with the problem.
Two important characters in Alpha Dog fill parental roles. Sonny Truelove is an older version of his son, Johnny. He's also a drug dealer, securing shipments for his son when necessary. There's little that's commendable about Sonny, but he does offer insight that frames the story. Alpha Dog begins with a reporter interviewing Sonny after Zack's murder. Sonny recognizes his failure, and he tells the reporter that the tragedy is not about "drugs, guns or disaffected youth," but parenting—or lack thereof.
The other parent is Olivia Mazursky. For her, the sun rises and sets on her son, Zack. She's determined to keep him from turning out like his half-brother (Zack and Jake share the same father). Accordingly, Olivia challenges her passive husband, Butch, to deal with early signs of Zack's acting out (such as when she finds a bong in his room). And as Zack talks about Mom, we learn that she tries to help him with his homework. Olivia is the only adult in the film who exhibits any concept of limits, consequences or discipline. After Zack's murder, she says, "When my son died, I died. I loved him every single day of my life. And I wasn't afraid to show him." Before he's murdered, Zack also resolves to be nicer to his mother, saying, "She's my best friend."
Several times Frankie suggests that Zack should "escape," but Zack never takes him up on it. Frankie's girlfriend, Susan, slowly realizes the severity of the situation and tries to talk Frankie into doing the right thing. Frankie eventually tries to get himself out of the way of what's happening, but the domino effect of the situation sucks him back in.
A painful, profane scene finds Olivia wondering aloud what purpose Zack's death could have served. She says, "They say there's a reason for everything. [If] God's got a purpose for me, He better get the f--- down here and tell me what it is, 'cause I don't see it."
Blood on his hands, Johnny flees to a friend for help getting out of the country. That friend later tells an interviewer that Johnny was "talking about God and forgiveness" as they drove to the border.
Graphic sexual content, both visual and in dialogue, pervades Alpha Dog. At least five scenes include nudity. Three are sex scenes that depict breast nudity and a bare female backside. One of these scenes is lengthy, to say the least, and includes explicit sexual sounds and motion.
We briefly see a girl jumping into a pool naked, but most of her body is shrouded by shadows. Twice, we glimpse bare rears in non-sexual contexts, one male, one female. In the latter instance, a man yanks a woman off a toilet. A woman has tattoos of topless women on her shoulders and arms.
Three scenes also involve two women making out with one man. Twice, those involved are adults (and the women are in their underwear). The last, however, involves two young women who go skinny-dipping with Zack (though they know he's only 15). One is aroused by the fact that Zack's been kidnapped. And it's implied that Zack has sex with at least one, if not both.
There are several other deep-kissing make out scenes. Crude references to oral sex and masturbation (including some in a mocking homosexual context) turn up at least 20 times. Oral sex is visually implied twice without being shown; in one of these scenes the woman comments on the man's impotence. Characters regularly employ perverse language to mock one another's male anatomy or to describe women's bodies
We briefly glimpse a bathroom wall covered with condom packages. A teen graphically inquires about what sex acts his mom and dad are going to perform on their anniversary. Later we hear that couple through a door. Frankie tells his hysterical girlfriend to "go have a period."
Easily the most disturbing violence in Alpha Dog is Zack's murder. Frankie tapes the boy's mouth shut (just as they'd done when they initially kidnapped him), then Elvis hits him in the head with a shovel. Zack is still alive, so Elvis finishes the job with a machine gun. It's a chilling scene.
Many other violent moments involve Jake. After Johnny rams Jake through a glass table, the two crash through a sliding glass door. When Jake's supervisor confronts him about drug use, Jake attacks him. He takes an ax to the front of Johnny's house, throws a plant through a window, generally trashes the house, then defecates (for all to see) in the living room. After Zack's kidnapping, Jake (a martial arts expert) brutally attacks several people at a party. A drunk, stoned Jake drives recklessly, on sidewalks and through yards.
In an interview with a reporter, Olivia confesses attempting suicide three times after Zack's death. She says she didn't do it right, offering a detailed (and dangerous) explanation of how a certain method of suicide would have been much more effective than the one she chose.
Johnny "hypothetically" offers Frankie $2,500 to murder Zack. When Johnny talks to Elvis about killing Zack and asks what he thinks, Elvis replies that he thinks Johnny's been watching too many music videos, but agrees to do it.
Many characters hit, slap or kick someone during moments of frustration. Frankie and another of Johnny's henchmen hurl rocks through Jake's front window. Drunk young women hang out windows of a moving car. Policemen treat Elvis harshly when they catch him.
Media-wise, a hip-hop music video depicts several men being shot. Several scenes show the guys playing extremely violent video games, usually first-person shooters.
Crude or Profane Language
Alpha Dog has more vulgarities than any movie I've ever seen—at least 395 f-words (including 45 pairings with "mother") by my count. That figure is probably low, as f-bombs get dropped so frequently I couldn't always keep up. Add another 60-plus uses of the s-word and about 50 of "b--ch." Jesus' name is taken in vain 10 times, and "g--d--n" is uttered a dozen. The n-word is used once.
Also frequent are slang references and abusive slurs employing just about every crude and obscene euphemism related to male and female genitalia (at least 20 instances). All told, my profanity count came up just shy of 600 words (including audible vulgarities in the movie's hip-hop soundtrack). That works out to nearly five expletives per minute—about one every 12 seconds.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Virtually every character in the movie smokes and drinks; most also smoke marijuana. There's hardly a scene in which someone isn't abusing one of these substances. Significantly, Elvis and Frankie drink beer and smoke pot to prepare themselves to murder Zack.
Explicit drug scenes show Frankie smoking marijuana from a bong and Zack smoking it from a pipe. Jake and Frankie contribute to Zack's delinquency by encouraging him to drink and smoke more. Another problematic scene takes place at a party when a young woman chugs a wine cooler, then coaches Zack to do the same.
Frankie's father is a botanist who grows marijuana in the backyard. Frankie describes his dad as a "full-blown alcoholic," yet can't acknowledge that's what he is as well. Johnny agrees to supply a shipment of marijuana to someone for $8,500. He needs his dad's help to deliver that much product, and Sonny agrees after his son convinces him that the buyer will make good.
Other drug references include Jake's supervisor accusing him of using speed and a mom who says she's using Ecstasy to enhance her sexual experience with her husband.
Other Negative Elements
Frankie profanely responds to his irresponsible father when Dad tells him to clean up an after-party mess. Kids' contempt for authority and limits in general is a given. Zack sneaks out his bedroom window. Zack and Frankie throw empty beer bottles in someone's front yard. A mother drops off her too-young-to-drive daughters at a booze-, sex- and drug-heavy party.
Those involved with Alpha Dog insist it offers serious social commentary. And they're certainly not concerned about its content. Director Nick Cassavettes, known for helming The Notebook and John Q, commented, "This is pretty raw stuff. But that's really only because it's an accurate account of what actually went down as we could put [it] together. ... I'm not one of those Tipper Gore advocates that think everything has to be politically correct. As a matter of fact, I hope it's not. I'm taking on this subject matter where you want to take a bath after watching this movie." Cassavettes hopes that in taking such an approach he can bludgeon his audience into considering what factors contributed to a tragic crime. "It's not necessarily [about blaming] the parents," he says, "but children are left to fend for themselves at an earlier age. You leave [young people] alone to make their decisions, and they're usually terrible at it. You get a bunch of them together, and they're even worse."
Even if we accept the director's comments about what motivated him to tell this bleak story, Alpha Dog still has one overarching—and huge—problem: It glorifies the very things it's ostensibly warning against. Johnny and Frankie and their "dogs" do indeed make terrible decisions. But along the way, they're arguably living every rebellious teen's fantasy. No limits. No parents. Infinite resources. The result? All the drinking, smoking, swearing, sex, drugs and video games they could ever hope for. I imagine for some impressionable viewers, the film's supposed moral—that a boundary-free world ultimately isn't what's best for kids—will be totally lost. Especially given the massive popularity of the film's real star, the oh-so-alpha Justin Timberlake. Instead, all they'll see is a decadent, unbridled lifestyle that likely looks pretty enticing before it all blows up. Better to burn out than fade away, anyway, right?
Will more mature moviegoers sort through the immoral muck and grasp Cassavettes' point? Maybe. But is that even the right question?