Anton Yelchin's face fills the very first frame of Alpha Dog, but at the time no one noticed. The painfully underrated 2006 film follows a neighborhood of boys — some still kids, some pretending, fatally, to be men — as they reluctantly, almost accidentally, decide to murder a 15-year-old stranger. Yelchin, who died in a car accident this weekend, plays that doomed teen, and though he'd been acting continually since he was 11, he was still a stranger to audiences, too. But by the time Alpha Dog ends, he’s unforgettable. Rewatch the opening credits, a collage of real-life VHS home videos, and you’ll spot him right away. There's Yelchin as a toddler looking solemn for the camera, most likely held by his actual parents, Russian figure skaters who transplanted their only child from St. Petersburg to Los Angeles when he was just 6 months old. There's Yelchin a little older, wearing fake vampire teeth and mugging for the lens. There's Yelchin, no more than 4, lying behind a plastic tricycle. He's grinning.
Few actors have had such a perfect breakout role, even in a film that was literally everyone's breakout role: Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, Amber Heard. Alpha Dog is also one of the last good performances by both Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone. Yet in a cast that crowded, Yelchin doesn't fight for attention. The first time you see him, he's eating a dull, suburban dinner with his mom and dad and estranged brother. The latter two are doing all the talking — fighting, really — and Yelchin silently observes. Later, he's kidnapped by wannabe drug dealers who have the clumsy idea of holding him for a $1,200 ransom. Yelchin still barely speaks. "I'm good," he assures his captors. "I'm OK."
But quietly, Yelchin tells us plenty. Look at his eager eyes and that small smile when the party people allow him to hang. As the tragedy careens on, the older guys loosen his duct tape cuffs so he can share their video games and weed. We feel his unspoken emotions: Life's been so boring. I'm stoked to belong. This is the best weekend of my life. He doesn't really start talking until he's being driven to his execution, a fact everyone in the car knows but him. He thinks he's going home. "I'm going to start fresh," he vows. Be nicer to his mom. Learn to play the guitar. Travel.
There's so much he never got to do.
Alpha Dog didn't find its audience, though it was the No. 1 movie on my top 10 the year it hit theaters. Once I knew who Anton Yelchin was, I saw every movie he made. I was waiting for him to become a huge star. He'd go on to be in bigger films — Star Trek, Terminator Salvation — but even though more people knew his name, they didn't see how good he could be. Blockbusters didn't suit him. Yelchin's gift was that he seemed to really live inside of a scene, to listen to the other characters, to convince you that this story was really happening to him. That doesn't translate to a green screen.
Plus, Yelchin was forever stuck between ages. As a boy, he looked like an old man. As an adult, he looked like a child. He was too wise for big, funny teen flicks, and too innocent for mature roles. Yelchin found a few parts that worked — Like Crazy; Charlie Bartlett; his latest film, Green Room — but his face was too angelic to score the weirdo, art house gigs that went to Shia LaBeouf and James Franco, the kind of parts that make people take notice.
Yet he was a true movie scholar. Yelchin studied film at USC, became passionate about photography, and once told me in an interview for Boxoffice magazine that he screwed up a first date by taking the girl to see the 1971 rape-revenge chiller Straw Dogs. He probably sensed he’d have to wait out his leading-man limbo until he stopped looking like a Renaissance saint. Directors knew he was amazing. Critics, too. I figured we had time.
Which is why this senseless, random, hollow accident is so heartbreaking. Yelchin never got that great, grown-up role. An immortal role. Heath Ledger lived just one year longer, but he got two of them.
"Yes, people do find things in themselves, and they develop," Yelchin told me years ago in a different Boxoffice piece when we were talking about his part in another ill-fitting action flick. "But there are intrinsic qualities that sometimes are bigger when they're smaller, and get toned down as they get older." In Alpha Dog, Yelchin's intelligence and humility and hope radiated from the screen. It's hard to imagine those qualities dimming as he grew up past 30, past 40, and settled into the career that, by then, he would have deserved for decades. Maybe we'd find out his prediction was wrong. I'm devastated that we'll never get the chance.