Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fight for Life, Die With Honor - "The Grey" Review

There is a moment early on in Joe Carnahan's (Smokin' Aces, The A-Team) newest film, The Grey, that stands as a blueprint for the moments to follow and a testament to the power of the film overall.  Liam Neeson's Ottway stands shivering in the wreckage of a plane over a dying man, his stomach has been cut open, whom he encourages to accept the warm blanket of death. 

The Grey is the unique genre film that manages to elevate its basic premise by utilizing its familiar trappings while simultaneously wrestling with greater themes.  In the case of The Grey it is the notion of impending death and when submission to its powerful jaws is appropriate.

These notions are directly reflected in the character of Ottway, a hired rifleman at a remote Alaskan oil-drilling facility that is populated by low-lifes and outlaws.  Ottway's job has him shooting any wolves that dare to venture close enough to attack the inhabitants of the facility. 

The Grey finds Ottway at a crossroads in his life and time at the frozen outpost, after the recent death of his wife.  Ottway steals away from the view of his coworkers, rifle in hand, to a secluded spot behind one of the largest drilling sites.   It is Ottway's intent to kill himself, gun in mouth, and he only relents when he hears the familiar howl of a distant wolf.  Some unrevealed thing about the chilling cry gives Ottway pause enough to clear his mind, one preoccupied with the recent death of his wife.

The next day, Ottway and a group of his coworkers board a plane bound for Anchorage that quickly turns tragic.  After a frighteningly realistic crash sequence, move aside Lost, the surviving passengers, seven of them, find themselves stranded in the middle of the harsh Alaskan wilderness with no hope of rescue.  To make matters worse, the group is within range of a wolf den which places them on the immediate kill list for the intensely predatory animals.

Ottway, as the only person with knowledge of wolves, quickly takes on a leadership position amongst the men.  This presumption of power doesn't sit well for everyone in the group, especially Diaz (Frank Grillo) who fights Ottway's authority every step of their journey.  Before-long the group abandons the wreckage to avoid getting picked off one-by-one by the wolves and makes haste for the closest tree-coverage, where they presume they'll stand a better chance against the feral creatures.

Carnahan chooses to barely reveal the wolves, like any good movie monster, and in doing so creates a truly inhuman threat to Ottway and company.  The wolves appear as eyes glowing in the dark and as the fog of warm breath in the distance.  By the time the audience gets their first true glimpse of the horror that awaits the struggling heroes it is often too late for their salvation.  If Jaws was the film that kept audiences out of the ocean, The Grey is the one that will cause them to kennel their dogs.

The Grey isn't content with just rehashing standard genre convention, which it still does better than any monster film in recent memory.  Instead, it attempts quite successfully to present an existentialist tale of survival and depression.  The essential and standard question of who will live and who will die, not only a genre staple but the base of all existentialist thought, takes on a new meaning in the context of the film.  Each death is presented as unavoidable, like dominoes, and yet still remarkably tragic.  Each death echoing Ottway's defining moment at the crash site where he coaches a wounded man to accept the warm blanket of death. 

Liam Neeson's portrayal of the frightened, yet determined, Ottway is quietly sensational.  There is a hard-earned honesty to Ottway's loss that comes trickling through his aged face, most likely propelled by Liam's own loss of his wife in 2009.  Ottway's journey is that of resilience.  This is a character that goes a long way from pursuing his death to fighting for his life with bare-knuckled determination.

Unlike most monster films, each inevitably doomed man in the caravan is given just enough time to allow the audience to care about their fate.  Instead of spending precious screen-time diving into the backgrounds of each character, The Grey features a wonderful fireside scene where each man describes the reason he wants to live.  It is this brilliant choice that lifts these characters off the page and fleshes out their quest.  It is amazing how something so simple as providing a goal for each of these men can quickly align an audience with their plight.

This wonderful characterization is assisted by Carnahan’s surprisingly masterful direction.  At times, this allows the film to exist somewhere between a lucid dream and the grim reality of the harsh Alaskan landscape.  Moments are admitted to play out with the speed they require and the editing is kept to a minimum, freeing up the scenes and removing the stylish filmmaking techniques that can create a barrier between the audience and the film.

Carnahan’s The Grey transforms the Alaskan landscape into a moral battlefield, full of heroes and monsters.  Just know that amongst morality tales it is no guarantee that heroes survive, just that they fight the hard fight and die with the greatest honor.

3.5 / 4 Reels



1 comment:

  1. Great review. Neeson is out-standing here and gives probably one of his best performances that we have seen from him in a very long time. The rest of the film also works because there’s not only this certain paranoia going on but even when the “action” comes, it’s tense, brutal, and surprising. Best film of the year so far even though that’s definitely not saying much.