It's tough being a caveman. Especially when you are left for dead after tumbling off a cliff in the middle of a blizzard, break both your ankles and wind up as the target of a wolf hunt.
That's the plight in which Keda, the scion of a hunter-gatherer tribe under duress. "Alpha" finds him battling the elements with only his raw force of will and instincts to guide him along his path to survival.
One of the few things going for Keda is his newfound friendship with one of the wolves who tried to attack him. The relationship started out rough, with the wolf attempting to take a chomp out of Keda's keester, and Keda turning around and stabbing the wolf in the shoulder, causing the wolfpack to abandon him.
The pair of orphans are left alone, forging an endearing bond via gestures, grunts, scuffles and good, old-fashioned snuggling. This is the 50,000-years-ago prequel that "A Dog's Purpose" yearned for.
Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee carries the film in what amounts to a one-man performance. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant," Smit-McPhee's pained expressions are enhanced not so much by raw acting talent, but the punishingly frigid environs in which he finds himself.
Director Albert Hughes -- branching off alone after building a career making the likes of "Menace II Society," "From Hell" and "The Book of Eli" -- thrives on minimalist storytelling economy. Using little dialogue -- what little he uses is a subtitled caveman dialect -- and uses superlative visual mastery to push his narrative along.
The tale of endurance that "Alpha" tales may be slim, predictable and at times ludicrous, the raw heart and passion of its intangibles ratchet up the intrigue. The film never slows down or bores, plunging from one harrowing sequence to the next.
Whenever there's a chance for Hughes to take the easy route as a storyteller, he forges the more difficult path. "Alpha" treks down the road less traveled, wincing as it stares down the icy roads that lie ahead, knowing full well how tight it's making you grip the armrests along the way.