Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Grey

directed by Joe Carnahan
starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney
Lidell Entertainment, January 27, 2012, 117 minutes
Rated R

After their plane crashes in Alaska, six oil workers are led by a skilled huntsman to survival, but a pack of merciless wolves haunts their every step.

I don’t want to sound like a hipster, but I have been genuinely excited about this film since I first read about it in Entertainment Weekly, I guess it’s been almost a year now.  The concept really spoke to me, and I was intrigued by the idea of these men trying to survive against the elements and a pack of wolves.  Since that time I have eagerly soaked up everything about this film, watched the trailers and clips, read the interviews, etc., etc. and in the end negotiated with my wife for some time to go and see it.

I was not disappointed.

However, I will say from the outset, that the trailers—while a lot of fun—make this movie out to be a one-note man vs. wild story; a story where after a plane crash these oil roughnecks need to outfight the wolves for their survival.  While there is that element to The Grey, there is also a very deep philosophical element to this story that surprised me and took this film to the next level for me.  What Carnahan has done is not just create Jaws with wolves, but has made an action thriller that is not just about physical survival but about mental and philosophical survival as well.  The Grey is a meditation on life, death and what comes in between.  It is a film about men trying to find their place in the world, and I know that this is a very loaded phrase—what place do men need to find? Every place in the world is a man’s place—and this is very true, the crisis of manhood is a false crisis at best, however, what The Grey accomplishes is it creates a space where men are able to acknowledge both sides of their nature: the bestial and the spiritual.

For me, it created a reflexive response within myself that caused me to ask, as the men in the film do, what it is I have that is worth fighting for.  Who can I rely on to help me fight for those things? God? Man? Myself?  There is a lot of questioning of the place of faith and spirituality in one’s life.  Who is God?  If He is a caring God, as religion would have you believe, why does He not intercede more often? How much of our lives are foreordained, or predestined by the hand of God, and how do these concepts affect our actions? If one is spiritual and believes in God, how does one account for the seemingly random and often destructive things that happen to people all the time—in the particular instance of this film the plane crash, the seemingly random choice of survivors, the pursuing wolves?  And if one is not spiritual, if one does not believe in God, what does that disbelief mean for these same events? Is life just randomly cruel? Is mankind inherently animalistic? Can man rise above his underlying animal nature and truly do something wonderful and/or beautiful with one’s life? These are all questions that come up in the film, and are discussed at length in the lulls between wolf attacks.  And while I’ve brought it up, let me say that the handling of the wolves in the film is very interesting.  There has been a lot of outcry and protest over the choice of wolves as the “monsters” in this film, and while those concerns have a place in a discussion, I will say that they are based chiefly on the trailers for the film which, as I have said, are somewhat misleading.  There is a lot more to the wolves in this film than just mindless beasts that attack and devour.

Most interestingly is that the pack structure of the wolves, Alpha male, Omega males, territoriality, organized and coordinated hunting, etc., etc. are used to not only create dangerous opponents to the men in the film, but it also is a mirror to the relationships and power dynamic of these oilmen.  There is an alpha, there is an omega, they become territorial, they look out for their own, they attempt to organize and coordinate their defenses, in short this is a film that explores how thin the veneer of civility is and what it takes to strip that away and what it takes to try and keep that veneer in place.  The wolves are simply the MacGuffin in this film that allows Carnahan to explore these issues.

On top of all of these philosophical issues, The Grey also features incredible directing, beautiful cinematography and some really superb acting, in all honesty, as much as the Academy Awards have become a joke, I really do hope that the film is remembered when it comes time to start making nominations because the film deserves that kind of recognition.  Director Joe Carnahan, stars Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo, screenwriter Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellman, composer Marc Streitenfeld, all deserve to be nominated for their work on this film.  In particular I want to single out Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo for their performances.  Neeson is outstanding as Ottway, a man who is left with little left to live for after his wife leaves him and who must find what it is he needs to keep on going.  This must have been a particularly personal role for him seeing as filming began less than a year after he lost his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident.  Though, Neeson is an excellent actor to begin with, and in this movie his badass quotient is raised considerably.  The actor with whom I was most impressed was Frank Grillo and his portrayal of ex-con John Diaz.  Grillo’s character, in the hands of a less-competent screenwriter, less-competent director or even a sub-par actor would have been easily one-dimensional and stereotypical: either the hardened criminal who is the human antagonist, or the con with a heart-of-gold beneath his tough façade.  Yet what emerges in The Grey is a portrayal that is exceptionally complex and highly engaging, and is easily the best performance in the film, even better than Neeson’s.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Grey, especially since it works on a couple of levels, the philosophical as well as the visceral.  This is not the bloody gorefest that is typical of such nature-run-amok films of this type (in fact, Jaws may be bloodier and more violent than The Grey, now that I think of it, and certainly your average episode of Bones or CSI on television is bloodier and gorier than this film is) but it does manage to pack in the thrills and has some real genuine scares and chills.  There are a number of extremely frightening moments and I will admit that there are two occasions that made me jump out of my seat, and while there is not a huge amount of blood spilled, there is enough to keep even the most hardcore of horror/thriller fans interested.  It also had one of the most intense and grueling plane crashes I have ever seen on film.

With its small single-gender cast, vast scope, a shocking sense of claustrophobia (given its locale in the Alaskan wilderness), the fight against bestial opponents and its shocking meditations on life, death, friendship and one’s place in the world, The Grey reminded very strongly of Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent.  I don’t think I’m too far off in stating that what Marshall does in The Descent with expected female roles not just in film but in the real world as well and how they can be subverted and redefined, Carnahan does in The Grey but with masculinity. I’m still working through this idea, and may revisit it at some point in the future, but I really think there is something there that puts these two films into conversation.

In the end, given the current cost of ticket prices and the state of the economy, I guess the highest praise I can give this film is to say that I would gladly plunk down money to see this in the theaters again.  The Grey is a very surprising, incredibly meditative film that manages to deliver more than the usual amount of scares and chills that this kind of nature-run-amok film has.

I cannot recommend it enough.

P.S. Stick around after the credits.  There is a brief post-credit scene that while it might not elaborate on the film’s ending, it might help you come to terms with it.

Official Trailer

The Grey at IMDb

01/29/2012 – 06:10:00 PM