Last year around this time we had the release of Sanctum, a submersible 3-D thriller pitting man against nature in the bowels of an underground cavern. The Grey is neither presented in 3-D nor takes place underground, but it is a survivalist tale nonetheless. Closer in spirit to the David Mamet-penned The Edge starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to The A-Team is set in the snow-capped Alaskan frontier. Only instead of having to face off against a ferocious Kodiak bear, a group of plane crash survivors must contend with savage wolves.
To be fair, the carnal behavior of this wolf pack is not a true representation of how wolves act in the wild – following the pattern of systematically picking off victims just like the great white shark did in Jaws. Still, The Grey, while a straight up man’s man type of a movie that would have been helmed by the likes of John Irvin (Raw Deal) or Walter Hill (The Warriors) back in the early ‘80s, is smarter than what is expected of a genre film of its type. The supporting cast may be your typical odd unit of familiar roles – the husky guy who slows the survivalist party down, the ex-con who challenges authority, et al. – that come together and break apart due to peril and fear, but it is what Liam Neeson brings to his character – playing the reluctant hero of the group – that overrides this tale of survival to make it an excellent allegory about man’s self-reliance.
And here I bet you thought it was just about Liam Neeson punching out wolves.
The Grey involves an Alaskan oil drilling team making a flight back to the civilized world only to suffer a terrible plane crash in the middle of wolf territory. The sequence is skillfully done with interior shots only and is primarily focused on Neeson. Singularly named Ottway, he is a man who is at a crossroads in his life. A hired assassin for the oil company to protect its interests, he spends his days surveying the wintry terrain for would-be hostiles. Mostly the feral kind. Ottway is a man of few words, preferring to drink alone and keep to himself. An event from his past has left him an empty shell, yet he continues to face sub zero temperatures and earn a wage. Through the misfortune of the plane crash Ottway becomes both a survivor and a savior to the crew left alive.
Now if you look up the word “badass” in the dictionary you are likely to find a definition that aptly describes Liam Neeson. While most audiences may have only recently come to see how much the can throw down in movies like Taken and Unknown, you forget that this is the same guy that gave tutelage to both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bruce Wayne. A commanding presence, here he is able to be both action-oriented and serious with his character.
Joe Carnahan’s decision to photograph Neeson in side profiles and from behind at the start of the picture allows the viewer to walk in his shoes and get a feel for his character, rather than just be a spectator. A conscious choice, it also shows that The Grey is unlike any of his previous features. It’s a Bugs Bunny wrong turn at Albuquerque-type of detour, far from the constructs of The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces, and even his directorial debut, Narc. Carnahan’s latest does everything possible but give you frostbite (Editor’s note: forgive the hyperbole). His direction when matched with Masanobu Takayangi’s photography (he recently lensed the MMA drama Warrior) gives the film a particular look, that of a harsh beauty. Marc Streitenfeld, who has been Ridley Scott’s film composer as far back as A Good Year, infuses the film with musical notes when needed, ranging from action intense to tragic melody. But, for the most part, the majority of background sound is the freezing wind.
With a team of three editors the film employs a flashback subplot involving Ottway in martial bliss, serving as a reminder of what he is fighting for. The other characters aren’t allowed such mental images but do reflect on their lives and what’s waiting for them on the mainland. The scene serves as a rallying cry to give them the strength to press on further.
Earlier in this review I wrote that the film is an allegory about man’s self-reliance. One of the central themes is that of God versus the individual, and how faith is not necessarily an asset when you are fighting hypothermia and a pack of wolves. In such dire circumstances one can’t fault the need to question a higher power on why he has been put into such a situation.
In all, The Grey packs a greater emotional punch than advertisements would leave you to believe. More than a simple survival story about men lost in the woods, Joe Carnahan plays with audience expectations by packing his story with such profound emotional resonance. Thrilling and scary at times, it is more about a man finding that fire to live and reorient himself than to say “Uncle” and call it quits. And leave it to Liam Neeson to play a character that Ernest Hemmingway would have fully embraced with a bear hug and a “Death in the Afternoon” cocktail.
Had The Grey had its theatrical bow in 2011, it would have easily been an honorable mention to my top ten list. As it is now, it deserves consideration as one of best films of 2012.
Also, as a friendly reminder, make sure to stay after the credits for an extra scene.
Director: Joe Carnahan
Notable Cast: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, James Badge Dale, Dallas Roberts
Writer(s): Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker”