Monday, August 20, 2018

Boy Meets Dog: ALPHA

Albert Hughes, making his first directorial effort without his co-directing brother Allen with whom he made several striking films including Menace II Society and The Book of Eli, is in a typically stylish mood for Alpha, a simple prehistoric parable in which a boy becomes a man by shunning violence and taming a wild beast. There's little to this basic plot -- a teen left for dead after a hunting accident slowly heals and bonds with a wild wolf as he painstakingly works his way across harrowing weather-beaten plains to home -- but Hughes provides the simple story a fine sense of space and place. The windy plains and steep cliffs build startling tableaux of natural, raw environment in which man is small and vulnerable. The world is wide and empty. The simple act of getting from place to place is an adventure; the process of hunting and gathering is a protracted life-or-death dilemma. Hughes builds this imagery in concert with a spare sound design -- whistling gusts; soft rattles of furs and rudimentary tools; a grunted and guttural tribal language with not a single recognizable word any modern human would know (hence the dialogue kept to a minimum and accompanied by English subtitles). It has a primal, elemental look and feel, burnished and polished with an eye to turning these simple scenes into something approaching myth in smooth CG-assisted camera moves, clever uses of speed-ramping and time-lapse photography, and blocking that occasionally looks like flesh-and-blood live-action recreations of museum dioramas. There are moments that look like pages from a comic book of oil paintings. I bet Hughes could make a heckuva Beowulf in the original Old English with this style.

The movie stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as the lost boy, painfully thin with long limbs and smooth face. Even bundled in animals skins and furs to ward off the autumnal chill, he takes up significantly less space than the muscled and grizzled men around him. It all serves to make him different, highlighting his youth, his tenderness, even before we see him incapable of killing a pig for food. After the accident and his tribe's hunters reluctantly, sorrowfully move on, he's attacked by wolves. While managing to scare them off, he leaves one poor growling pup stranded with a bad cut impeding his mobility. The boy's sweetness -- his mother, with worried love, has said "he leads not with his spear, but with his heart" -- can't leave the dog for dead, and therefore cleans the wound and brings food and water to share. Setting itself up as an origin story for the domestication of dogs, the movie features a slow, steady drip of increasing trust between the two. Smit-McPhee carries the scenes in concert with some fine canine acting ("and introducing Chuck as Alpha" is indisputably the "and" credit of the year), both holding their own in body language driven scenes. Hughes keeps the danger big and scenes small, tracing the primal needs for food and shelter in the specific, trusting the landscape to carry both suspense and scope. The eccentric aesthetic choices -- long takes, striking blocking, an invented prehistoric language, digital 3D popping with a sculpted, inviting depth not seen since the heyday of the tech's boomlet of auteur interest -- serve the story well. It makes what could've been simple and small sweep with visual interest, and holds back some of the story's sentimentality with the harsh reality of ancient tribal survival. It's an unusual film, not quite as gripping or moving as you might think, but nonetheless compelling, animated with a convincing sense of prehistoric proportion. 

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