The Inland Empire. 1999.
Johnny (Emile Hirsch) is a young hoodlum who runs a drug empire, selling the contraband his dad, Sonny (Bruce Willis) provides. Johnny is building a little empire of his own; owns his own home, has a posse of ‘friends’ who hang around, party and get high, enforces his debts with the use of junior hit men, has a bunch of loose girls hanging around, the like. Dad and Grandpa (Harry Dean Stanton) treat Johnny like the adult he is, prodding him to “get some tail” and to forget about his steady girlfriend. Life is too short. One evening, Jake (Ben Foster) arrives, strung out, to talk to Johnny. He is unable to collect a debt owed to Johnny and now Johnny holds him responsible. Jake becomes angry and threatens Johnny. The next day, Johnny threatens Jake’s job by calling his boss and telling him about Jake’s drug use and the violence escalates. Later, Johnny and his crew, including Franki Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake) and Tiko Martinez (Fernando Vargas) are driving around and spot Jake’s younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin) walking around. They snatch him and decide to use him as a hostage, until his older brother forks over the money. But Zack actually enjoys the company of the older guys and goes along willingly and also enjoys the local notoriety of being a hostage. But Johnny doesn’t have anywhere to hold Zack and they make the circuit of all of their friends, paying them off in weed and/ or attention. When Olivia (Sharon Stone) hears Zack, her son, has been kidnapped, she becomes distraught. When she learns Jake, her step-son may be responsible, she goes ballistic.
“Alpha Dog” is set-up as a faux documentary. The film opens with an off-camera interviewer questioning Sonny (Willis) about his son and we quickly learn the real reason behind the events of this tragedy; no parental supervision. As Sonny speaks, we quickly realize he should have been given an involuntary vasectomy. As the story progresses, the various days and times appear onscreen, to help us navigate the events. Also, as new people enter the story, we see their name, and in some cases “Witness #1”. As the number of characters increases, so does the number of witnesses. If this film actually presents a true depiction of the events surrounding this event, the number of people who participated in the abduction, or saw Zack, or could’ve helped by calling the police is simply staggering. But considering the fact most of the people are young, frequently high or drunk, and have little supervision and too much money, it is still simply staggering.
Emile Hirsch plays Johnny and he does a good job of showing the character’s toughness and bravado. He isn’t as tough as he looks and uses his posse of friends to make him appear more formidable. But he has been exposed to too much easy money and too little supervision, so he runs a bit wild. Naturally, kidnapping the younger kid seems like a perfectly natural solution to his problem; he needs to get Jake to pay him the money he owes. Jake is a psycho, so he comes up with what seems like the only plausible solution.
Justin Timberlake plays Frankie, Johnny’s good friend. Initially, he goes along with the idea, more out of novelty, but as the situation starts to turn dark, he becomes less interested in helping out.
Shawn Hatosy pays Elvis, one of Johnny’s friends, who also owes him some money. Unable to pay him back, Johnny has him perform housekeeping and other chores in his house, in front of their other friends, as a way to demean them. Later, he takes on a job for Johnny, clearly meant to erase his outstanding debt. This is one of the more interesting characters in the story; throughout Johnny and his friends demean Elvis, slinging insults at him, yet he sticks around, so desperate for their ‘friendship’. When he ultimately agrees to do something for Johnny, it makes sense. His soul is that empty.
Bruce Willis does a good job of portraying one of the worst parents ever to appear in a film. From his first comments, at the opening of the film, we quickly realize this is not a man we would ever want around our kids. He and Stanton make a good team, perfectly displaying the reason Johnny has turned out as screwed up as he is.
Anton Yelchin is also interesting as Zack, Jake’s younger brother. He feels smothered by his mother, so he actually thrives on being around a group of kids his older brother’s age. When they learn who he is, and why he is hanging around, he becomes a sort of mini celebrity. People who are older and probably deemed ‘cooler’ suddenly want to hang around him. It also makes him catnip to a couple of older girls, who clearly are attracted to the young celebrity.
If all of the performances were of this caliber, the film would be a lot better. But then we have Sharon Stone and Ben Foster, both of whom do some serious scenery chewing. Ben Foster plays Jake, the strung out step-son of Olivia, played by Sharon Stone. Foster plays the role broad, very broad. Michael Caine once said if you play drunk, it will look like you are playing 'drunk'. His words are very true, because whenever he plays a drunken character, he seems like a real person. His actions seem authentic. Foster could’ve benefited from following Caine’s advice. From the moment he first appears on screen, he looks and acts like a “strung out drug dealer”. He plays the role way over the top. Even when he is at the office, he is clearly strung out. Sharon Stone plays Zack’s mother and clearly dotes on her son, perhaps because she is thankful he didn’t turn out like Jake. Before he is even kidnapped, she is way over the top, almost to the point where she might start cutting up her son’s food and feeding it to him. When he is kidnapped, she is naturally distraught, but she almost starts flailing about, her arms waving wildly. These are not subtle performances and bring the rest of the film down.
Throughout the film, various kids go to their parents, looking to talk about the situation, looking for advice, but they don’t get far. One kid knocks on her mother’s door, interrupting her having sex with her husband on their anniversary. “Mom, can I talk to you for a moment?” “I just asked for one night to make love to my husband, one f***ing night of the year” before she slams the door. This is not the only time something like this happens and it only serves to slam the message home; these people need to get some counseling on how to behave like human beings.
This is not a film for immature teenagers to see, despite the appearance of Justin Timberlake. There is a lot of material that would be unsuitable for many ages and maturity levels; drug use, nudity, swearing, treatment, violence and more.
“Alpha Dog” works best as a sort of chronicle of this event, showing the who, what, why and where of the situation. The performances are mixed to adequate, and serve the story, but the two over the top performances by Stone and Foster bring the film down a couple of notches.