The Grey (2012)
Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney
Release date: January 27 (UK). They’re a bit like cats sometimes, aren’t they – movies; you don’t choose them, they choose you. I wanted to watch The Grey, I surely did, but I wasn’t in any hurry to do so. Then came this, the 2012 film conundrum. Do I pick another, even though by doing one extra I’m inadvertently making myself a year older? May contain a palpable dearth of dancing wolves and spoilers…
I felt like Peter Jackson at the end of Lord Of The Rings. You see him in the making-of doc shooting the very last pick-up of Frodo. He gets it in the first couple of takes but keeps filming, one shot after another. Because he’d been at it for so long he didn’t want it to end. And so it was with my ‘Birthday Bash’, thinking I was done on 2011’s post, coz doing another is one too many. But no, I had to do one more take, because I’ll miss the ‘Bash’, even though the ‘Noughties’ severely drained my enthusiasm. So, I had a look at what was out near Jan 30th… 3 titles showed up on the 27th: Man On A Ledge, One For The Money and… The Grey. I put the 3 movies on my Lovefilm ‘high priority’ list and waited to see what dropped through the letterbox. I’m allowed 2 films at a time so the idea was, wait to see which 2 came through then throw it open to you lot, a democratic vote – whichever gets the most votes… Exciting or what! Man On A Ledge turned up and a day later, The Grey. And then, on trying to play Man On A Ledge… well, it wouldn’t. I’ve had this problem before with discs from Lovefilm. Basically, The Grey chose me.
You might think you’re watching this film, but you’re not. Movie-makers are fond of using that Friedrich Nietzsche quote, y’know, the one about looking long into an abyss and the abyss also looks into you. The Grey looks into you. It is unflinching, ruthless. With it comes an overwhelming sense of discomfort because we’re being brought nose-to-nose with things too soon to confront, we’re not ready. Oh, that it were just wolves…
Ottway (Liam Neeson) is yer man, a troubled loner working for a petroleum company out in the snowy wastes of Alaska, protecting the work force from renegade wolves with his trusty rifle. We meet this desolate man as he puts his thoughts down on paper and we are left in no doubt of his intentions. He is among his own out here, fugitives, drifters… ‘men unfit for Mankind.’ He tells us his wife left him and we see the first of several daydreams of her beneath crisp white linen, loving and content. Daydreams aren’t enough to sustain him; ‘I’ve stopped doing this world any real good…’ Nevertheless, he is on board a plane to Anchorage during a shift-change when he and a bunch of wisecracking workers get smacked out of the sky by a storm. Marshalled by Ottway, the survivors begin a long and arduous trek to safety while a territorial pack of wolves close in around them…
Death happens in The Grey. No fanfare, it just happens. It isn’t stylised; people don’t fall in speed up-slow down – dying, but looking cool dying. When somebody falls they fall hard and you’ll feel every bone crunching impact. Death isn’t soft-soaped; it doesn’t wait for you, ease you into the idea… Alive, cut to next scene – dead. Coz that’s the way the clock ticks for us all isn’t it, one minute our folks and friends are there, the next – gone. In another sequence, we have to sit and watch a man die. It isn’t quick. We don’t know him, we’ve only just met him – do we even know his name? It makes a mockery of the belief that in order to care for a character you’ve got to get to know them, bit of back story, bit of screen time. Nope. It is profoundly moving, as witnessed by Henrick (Dallas Roberts) and Talget (Dermot Mulroney) caught between sadness and awe – “I felt him go…” Ottway it is who sends this man towards the light. He’s like a big old, beat-up Irish angel, speaking gentle words of compassion, words he may have given to himself in the not too distant past. All the while, The Grey keeps on staring at you.
What of the wolves? Could they be inner demons or the fears of men made physical? From a technical standpoint, I thought the animatronic animals were a disappointment. Does it matter, what with most of the action taking place in the dark or in a blizzard? It doesn’t. Sure, from a distance the CG wolves don’t look quite real, quite there; director Carnahan is using them as a metaphor anyway. But up close… my, what big teeth you have, Grandma… They’re a scary presence off-screen, or as mere shadows and shapes moving through the frame – that’s fear, stalking, tangible. Low-life brawler Diaz (Frank Grillo) denies his fear and displays open defiance to Ottway, the Alpha-males. Earlier, we heard a challenge for supremacy between two wolves in the forest. That challenge was put down violently; what of this one? A word on the sonics here; the surround FX are some of the best I’ve heard on a disc. This whole sequence, the race to the trees, desperately building a fire… the sound places you in this harsh wilderness, the wind swirling, scrabbling paws in the snow very close and the howling pan around the speakers (if you’ve got lots of speakers). It is terrifying and claustrophobic and by the time you see the wolf-breath rising into the night air as the howling reaches a crescendo your nerves will be run ragged.
Liam Neeson is immense. It’s a brave performance, but then I think he has been waiting for the right film, this film, to exorcise some demons. Neeson draws on personal heartbreak having lost his wife Natasha Richardson back in 2009. I believed every word out of his mouth because here is an actor who has already stared into the abyss and what he saw there is laid bare on screen. Y’know, I wouldn’t be surprised if Carnahan, moved by Neeson’s loss, fashioned the film specifically for him. Certainly, there’s nothing else in Carnahan’s canon to suggest… this. But it’s Neeson’s show, from the bleak opening monologue through the warmth of his comfort to a dying man, to his incandescent rage at an absent deity, “Fuck faith; earn it!” If he doesn’t get, at the very least, an Oscar nom for The Grey it will be an effing travesty. Neeson is ably supported by a group of blokes who, with the slimmest of pickings manage to colour in a character for themselves. There’s nothing to play; run and be scared. But they inject a calm acceptance of their predicament (rounded out by Joe Anderson as motor-gob Flannery and Nonso Anozie as Burke) and a willingness to put their trust in Ottway – all except Diaz who will also reach a touching epiphany along the way. It’s hard to play determination and weary resignation at the same time but Mulroney and Roberts nail it and in doing so ensure we’re not just watching ‘The Liam Neeson Experience’.
I shall also mention Marc Streitenfeld’s score. At turns comforting and understanding, at others full of cold menace – for me, better than his Prometheus work. I’d also be interested to know how Jamin Winans’s The City Surf got into the film (by way of the fantastic Ink) – a time-stands-still piece of music. The quibbles I have are minor; stylised film grain. Not sure where Carnahan’s going with that. The grain is buzzing around worse than the on-screen blizzard half the time. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers a number of fine shots; it’d be nice to see them properly. Surely the uninterrupted, barren wilderness mirrors the souls of these men better than any grain can. Of course, some of these men may find their souls again, out there in the fray. Also, I can’t avoid mention of the ending. Ultimately, I suppose, it is frustrating – in a conventional cinema-going sense; I can imagine a large number of punters feeling cheated as the final image disappears and the credits roll. If you’re still around by the end of the credits… well, you’re given an extra nibble, but don’t expect a heavenly choir to bray enlightenment in yer face. The Grey continues to stare at you. Got the balls to stare back, or what?
So, yeh, you may have been given the impression by the movie marketing machine that you’re going into some kind of 10-Little-Indians, survival porn flick. The Grey takes us to a deeper, darker place, a place we don’t like to go because it’s inside us. And maybe it reminds you of a place where you once found yourself, in the heart of darkness. At the end, there’s a peach of a left hook waiting for you, as Ottway warms himself with another memory of his wife…
“Don’t be afraid…,” she’s been telling him. All this time I thought she meant ‘… to die.’ I’ve changed my mind. Don’t be afraid to live.
‘Die Hard With A Wolf’ trailer: http://tinyurl.com/7zowlxz
I’ll give it 4 Wolf Eyes out of 5
I’m dedicating this review to the 12 people, fellow cinema-goers, who went to watch a film on July 20th and never went home. Spare a thought for the families, including that of a 6-year old girl, who are now deep in their own heart of darkness, and for the 58 injured still recovering.
ThereWolf, July 2012