Directed By: Joe Carnahan
Written By: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
Liam Neeson has had an interesting career trajectory. He has gone from a highly respected dramatic actor to a highly respected action star. Typically the path is the other way around. However the credibility he brings as an actor provides a level of reverence to a project that may have not existed otherwise. The latest example of this is with the recent released film The Grey. Though I think this may have been an example of how his new found bravado as an action star could cause a large misconception of what type of movie The Grey is. Some may see the ads for this film and think they are about to watch Taken with wolves, but they are in fact about to embark on a journey that goes beyond the simple struggle for survival and into the complexity of the makeup of the human condition.
The film begins at an Alaskan oil rig right before the majority of the workers are about to leave for the season. Liam Neeson plays Ottway a man who is able to remain a mystery even in a land of forgotten pasts. In the early onset the film is able to create this sense of dread through a strong use of atmosphere. The majority of this film was shot on location in British, Columbia and it takes full advantage of that fact. It is a land that has a coldness to life that makes it void of any type of spirit or hope. It is clearly perfect for the people and characters that call it home. Though Ottway is this mystical figure he is a man full of struggle. You see that right from the beginning as he attempts to make the ultimate life or death choice. The choice he makes clearly defines the way he takes on his future ultimate challenge. Often the term slow burn is reserved for describing the pacing of a film or the rising conflict that exists. In this that term could describe the underlying message that steadily creeps up in important moments. It’s a message that is thick in meaning but subtle in delivery. What is unique about this film is some of the best parts are so restrained that while watching one can become easily ignorant to their existence. The early moments can seem like a waste of time if you don’t pay attention to their actual purpose. When the action does start occurring it takes its time to build the moment. An example of this is the plane crash that leaves the characters in the impossible battle of man against nature. You know simply based on premise that this plane crash will be occurring. With that in the back of my mind I figured it would occur quickly and very early on in the story. While it did happen early on it didn’t happen quickly. In fact it was clear that this had fun playing against expectations in a number of key areas this just being one example. During the actual plane flight there were a multitude of moments when I assumed the plane crash was about to happen. Instead it would revert back to a moment of extreme calm and peace. Making you wonder if it was ever going to happen. During this sequence there was this eerie moment that stuck with me long after I saw the movie. It consisted of the camera slowly moving throughout the plane as you began to see the breath of the passengers slowly become visible as the temperature inside began to fall. Though no words were spoken in that sequence you could hear the sounds of absolute horror being shouted. The actual plane crash was also well done, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the plane crash of Lost as it seemed to borrow a few of the same techniques.
After the crash Ottway and few other oil rig workers discover they have crashed deep in the Alaskan Arctic wilderness. With no hope for rescue they must band together to survive if they have any chance of making it through this hopeless situation. The situation is made even more complex when they soon discover that their crash has sparked the interest of a nearby pack of wolves. Smelling blood these wolves attempt to take advantage of these displaced humans who have little to fight back against these ferocious beasts. When you are dealing with real life animals like wolves the question is often how do you portray them in your film? Some choose to use real life wolves while others use CGI or animatronics. The filmmakers here didn’t have the option of using the real thing since they shot this on location. So the only real choice they had left was to go with CGI. While that choice was understandable it did cause the look of the wolves to feel in conflict with the rest of the film. You did get the sense the filmmakers were aware of this as they used a number of clever camera techniques to limit how often you actual saw the wolves. Similar to the shark in Jaws the amount of times you actual see the creatures is small, but their existence is ever present. I know a selling point of The Grey is the idea of Liam Neeson fighting wolves. That point only exists based on the marketing of the film. If that is your selling point to the movie your expectations will surely be met with dissatisfaction. The conflict with the wolves does provide a huge level of tension and suspense, but through a more realistic approach. A lot of that suspense was created in how the film played with the rules of the genre. One rule that was played with was the idea that the camera time a character has at the start of the film will correlate with the amount of time the character will survive. Simply put if we spend a lot of time with you in the beginning chances are we will spend a lot of time with you till the end. That did not happen as characters would die off a lot quicker than expected. Small tweaks like that provide little twists that I find highly enjoyable.
Neeson is easily the biggest star and draw to this film,, but there are a few other standout performances. For example Dermot Mulroney was completely unrecognizable in his performance. He was able to completely fade into his everyman role. That same statement could be said for the majority of the cast. There were a few characters that did follow certain trends you’d expect in an adventure film of this nature. Certain characters seemed to be nothing more than cannon fodder, which is to be expected. When you have a film that made a habit of bucking trends it made the areas where it failed to do so stand out a lot more. While I appreciated the deep meaning that was infused in the story there were times when it felt a little heavy handed. When they forcefully used the wolves as a metaphor to describe the relationship between the men it felt rather unnecessary. Mainly due to the fact that the major character arcs were strong enough without it. Those arcs were full of quality character development as you saw this situation challenge them in ways that went beyond the physical. Perhaps what made this unique was having people, whohave seemingly given up on life, have to fight for survival. Having the choice of life or death taken away had a large impact on how they took on the situation. It was an interesting idea that was well explored. The purpose of life, the existence of faith, and the roleof man all were themes that were highly analyzed throughout. The story was full of these pieces that seem insignificant at first but as things progressed their purpose was slowly revealed. When you finally discovered what was driving Ottway for example you were greeted with a tremendous payoff. The same can be said for other characters as well. You began to understand why this challenge had such a deep impact on them as their forgotten pasts started coming to light. Interesting enough it wasn’t who these people actually were that was surprising as they tended to fit roles you’d expect. It was the fact that these so called everymen embraced life in such a compound way that was so shocking.
Now I don’t want this movie to seem just like a philosophers answer to The Edge. It is full of thrilling moments that will make you stand on the edge of your seat just as much as it will make you think. Besides the adventure caused by the wolves you had the dilemma created by the Arctic landscape. Extreme low temperatures, high winds, endless snow, and a mountainous terrain all provided their own set of challenges. The main event however were the wolves clashing with the human survivors. I can see animal rights activist getting mighty stirred up based on how these creatures were portrayed. You can debate the accuracy of the portrayal all day what you can’t debate was the fact they created some of the best horror moments in recent memory. Often today’s horror films are nothing but “boo” moments that lack any sense of actual fear. This did have its fair share of “boo” moments the difference was they were well executed and only added to the ambiance of terror. The CGI of the wolves was questionable at times, but overall that was an easy issue to forgive. Unique camera techniques and a great use of sound helped make up for less than stellar computer graphics. Humans have worked their way on the top of the food change for quite awhile now. What this showed was that you only need to take a few elements away to see how fragile humankind can be.
One issue that needs to be addressed is the controversy that was caused by the ending. Without giving too much away the ending could cause you to leave the theatre feeling rather dissatisfied. While I completely understand that sentiment I personally didn’t feel that way. I feel a lot of that anger was caused by the misunderstanding of what the film was based on the trailers. However if you pay attention to everything leading up to that point what occurs makes complete sense. It was the final example of how ambitious the story was. The ending showed a large amount of disciple especially for today’s standards. Overall I was legitimately surprised by what this film ended up being. What could have easily of been a run of the mill adventure turned out to be something of far more substance.