Justin Timberlake’s inauspicious lead role in straight to-landfill clunker Edison proved once again that global pop stardom doesn’t necessarily equate with matinee idol status. Yet the trouser snake acquits himself surprisingly well in Alpha Dog, a youth-gone-wild melodrama from Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars, The Notebook) based on the real-life murder of teen Nick Markowitz (here renamed Zack Mazursky) in 2000. Markowitz was abducted as collateral on a minor drug debt, and after two days of extremely public partying with his hedonistic captors, was brutally executed (the same story riffed by Larry Clark in his 2001 film Bully).
Following in the footsteps of his father, improvisational film guru John, Cassavetes coaxes natural performances from his young cast, while philosophically liberal enough to smear blame on every possible aspect of California’s sun-drenched society, including pot-dealing entrepreneurs, vacant girlfriends and ineffectual parents.
Some arch directorial tricks and bloated cameos from Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone only distract from Markowitz’s story, leaving Timberlake to assume the pivotal role of a witness whose unwillingness to intervene tilts events towards tragedy. As with Barbara Kopple’s recent Havoc the posh gangbanger etiquette that Cassavetes illustrates quickly wears thin, but Timberlake’s charismatic performance reveals Alpha Dog’s bleak, nihilistic core.