A film review by Craig J. Koban February 8, 2012

RANK:  #19

THE GREY jjj
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2012, R, 117 mins.

 

John Ottway: Liam Neeson / Talget: Dermot Mulroney / Diaz: Frank Grillo / Henrick: Dallas Roberts / Flannery: Joe Anderson

Directed by Joe Carnahan / Written by Carnahan and Ian McKenzie Jeffers, based on the story “Ghost Walker” by Jeffers.

Joe Carnahan’s THE GREY is a brutally desolate, mercilessly intense, and chillingly efficient outdoor survival thriller that preys upon viewers’ worst nightmares: being stuck out in the middle of nowhere where you will die in one of two ways - (1) due to exposure to the harsh and unforgiving elements or (2) even worse, due to animals hunting you down and devouring you.  The film taps into how people from a wide cross section of backgrounds can be reduced to their most primal when faced with such nagging and potentially fatal obstacles.  THE GREY does not just have teeth-clenched testosterone seeping through here and there, it’s positively drenched in it.    

Perhaps what’s even more compelling to this man vs. nature vs. man tale of continued existence – based on the short story GHOST WALKER by Ian McKenzie Jeffers, adapted to the screen by Carnahan and Jeffers -  is the fact that the film has another agenda besides dispensing how tough, but vulnerable men physically battle the wild.  The screenplay has time for some existentialist leanings, as characters not only discuss the nature of the cruel and deadly conundrums they face, but also about who they are in the face of possibly no salvation in sight.  

There are ample fireside discussions between all of the survivors about God, faith, and what men do when confronted with the inevitability of death.  Some critics have found THE GREY’S level of philosophical deepness too obviously tacked on, but I found that it adds a layer of unexpected complexity to the film.  Lesser directors would serve up mindlessly drawn and one-note characters up for the slaughter; Carnahan is shrewder: he allows every one of his coarse roughnecks to have a distinct voice and some semblance - displaced as it may be - of dignity in death. 

Of course, THE GREY follows many of the obligatory stock elements of survivor thrillers: a ragtag group of mismatched men find themselves on an expedition that gets stranded in the harshest of climates, where they must band and cling to one another to ensure their collective survival against the ruthless weather and nearby salivating predators.  We are given a very brief prologue that introduces us to the main protagonist, whom later finds himself as the leader of the survivors.  Outwardly, John Ottway (Liam Neeson, brimming with as much ruggedly stern and gravel voiced masculinity as ever) is a focused, battle hardened, and stoic man that makes a living hunting and shooting down wolves to protect the workers of a nearby pipeline project.  Inwardly, though, this man is emotionally damaged.  “I’ve stopped doing this world any good,” he ruminates in his early voiceover.  Flashbacks indicate that he had a loving wife that he has mysteriously lost.  The only thing that stops this depressed individual from putting his hunting riffle in his mouth and pulling the trigger is killing the wolves that, in turn and in his words, save “the assholes of the world: ex-cons, drifters, fugitives…men unfit for mankind.” 

After one evening when he nearly commits suicide, Ottway finds himself on a plane with dozens of other pipeline workers.  Then, without warning, the plane begins to experience rough turbulence and crashes down from the skies in the film’s greatest moment of minimalist impact (Carnahan shoots the spectacular sequence with a combination of tight close-ups, chaotic camera pans, and ear-splitting and booming sound effects from within the cabin to sell the hellishly disorienting aura of the crash instead of relying on CGI and model effects to outwardly portray it).  When Ottway awakens in the middle of a frigid artic landscape, several hundred feet away from the fiery remains of the plane, the severity of his situation settles in.

 

 

He is among seven men that have survived: some of them include the sensitive-minded Henrick (Dallas Roberts); the man of faith, Talget (Dermont Mulroney), and the most notorious of the bunch, Diaz (WARRIOR’s Frank Grillo) an ex-con that simply does not give a damn about anything and anyone.  It becomes clear that the men will either die from the cold or be eaten alive by a local pack of man-hungry wolves, so Ottway decides that the best course of action is to get the men out of the open snow-covered plains and to a nearby forest that would provide better cover and protection.  Yet, making the gut wrenching trek through knee-deep ice and snow and arriving in the woods proves to do very little in terms of fending off their pursuers.  These creatures don’t discriminate when it comes to location: they arbitrarily begin to pick apart the survivors one at a time.  

The $25 million budgeted THE GREY is a fine return to the initial promise that Carnahan gave us after NARC, but then got detoured with too many trivial and disposable audience-friendly auctioneers like SMOKIN' ACES and THE-A-TEAM.  He must have taken a cue from JAWS when plotting out THE GREY’s haunting sense of escalating tension and dread (we are often afraid of the idea of a threat and not by the image of it).  It’s amazing how very little we actually see of the wolves and when we do (they're either real wolves, animatronic puppets, men in suits, or low key computer generated visions) it’s in quick flashes and glimpse for the most part, which only lends to the film’s throbbing sense of intensity (the most spin-tingling moment simply shows the frigid breath of a pack of wolves in the shadowy distance).  The environmental elements become a character in their own right: filming on soundstages in front of green screens would have ruined this film’s effect, but Carnahan’s cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, evokes an Alaskan wilderness (actually British Columbia) with both a peacefully beautiful and intimidating and aggressive edge.  You never once doubt that these men are in a frosty hellscape; you want to shiver with them while they are trapped by this uncompassionate wilderness. 

The screenplay, as mentioned, is also smarter than average for how it sidesteps expectations.  Diaz, for example, seems like he’s being set up as a one-dimensional thug who exists to just be the film’s resident baddie that disobeys Ottway’s leadership.  It’s interesting, though, how his character makes a spiritual journey of his own and occupies, in my mind, one of the film’s most touchingly sad and serene moments when he realizes that he has come as far as he can on his journey of survival and just wishes to stop, sit down, and gaze lovingly at the beautiful natural terrain around him before he perishes.  The film’s spiritual leanings may turn off some, but they give the characters and their plight a texture that otherwise would not be there.  One of the sub-themes of THE GREY is God’s pitiless detachment from man when he pleads for His assistance, as Leeson’s Ottway does at one point when he’s at his most pathetically needy.  Realizing that he will get no aid from up above, he deadpans, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.” 

Only Neeson can get away with line readings like that and give them a gnarly gravitas.  THE GREY proves now, more than ever, that the closing-in-on-60 Irish actor has officially become action-thriller royalty.  He was a crusading swashbuckler in ROB ROY; a noble, but powerful Jedi Knight in THE PHANTOM MENACE; one of the Caped Crusader's most deadly foes in BATMAN BEGINS; an ex-CIA agent kicking Albanian-slave-trader ass in TAKEN; and recently a fiercely deranged biochemist searching for his real identity in UNKNOWN.  Now with THE GREY, the former Alfred Kinsey and Oskar Schindler has fully cemented his street cred as an tough, brooding, and menacing action star of statuesque presence that's not to be screwed with...ever.  The film’s high point shows Ottway – with a hunting knife and broken mini-alcohol bottles taped to his hands – bracing for battle against the monstrous wolf pack leader.  It’s alpha male versus alpha male, so to speak.  

Something tells me that this particular wolf did not see TAKEN.

REVIEW ADDENDUM 

The ending has been the source of some controversy and disappointment for some viewers and critics (there is even an after-credits sequence - unseen by me - that apparently hints at some closure that the first ending didn't contain.  I appreciated the nihilism and startling sense of morose finality contained in THE GREY's very abrupt conclusion.  It seems like the only rationale ending that a film like this could have had and it sticks closely to the theme of the film: it's not important whether or not you survive a battle, but rather that you fought the battle in the first place.

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