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Movie Review: The Grey

January 27, 2012
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January is usually known as an arid wasteland for new film releases. Studios dump all the films that weren’t good enough for awards consideration, and the results are not pretty. My expectations for The Grey were tempered accordingly. I expected a campy creature-feature, nothing more. What I got instead was a complex, touching and intelligent tale of survival. Solid acting, breathtaking set pieces and thoughtful ruminations on faith and spirituality elevate The Grey from the typical ranks of action-adventure movies.

A group of oil company workers described as “unfit for mankind” depart on a small plane bound for Anchorage, which crashes in the middle of the frozen tundra somewhere in Alaska. Only seven of the passengers survive, but the crash becomes the least of their worries. The small band of men must face hunger, fatigue, freezing temperatures and a large population of territorial wolves. Ottway (a terrific Liam Neeson) instantly becomes the de facto leader when he takes charge in the chaos and panic following the crash. While others are dazed, terrified and in shock, Ottway is calm, collected and practical. A particularly poignant scene establishes his strength of character as he gently helps ease a dying man into death. That’s the exact moment that I knew the film was going to be special.  Neeson is so poised and graceful in the scene;  I completely believed in his character from that moment on.

The film feels very much like Jaws meets Deliverance. The rough and tumble men bond over their shared sense of peril while they are picked off one by one by either the wolves or the elements. The great injustice of surviving the harrowing plane crash only to succumb to these forces is frustrating to watch. You truly want these men to survive because they deserve to. Which brings me to the faith aspect of the film. Many of the men have strong faith, or believe that there must be some pre-destined reason that they were the only survivors. But how do you hold on to those beliefs when you see your numbers dwindle? Why would you be put through all of this only to be ripped apart by wolves?

Ottway is a complicated character. He was ironically employed by the company as a sniper who protected the base from wolves and bears, giving him some inside information on wolf behavior.  He was dangerously close to committing suicide the evening the plane departed, but after the crash he arises a new man, determined to survive the ordeal. He is the heart and soul of the group, at times appearing to will them to live. Late in the movie, he shouts a phrase of dialogue that gave me goose bumps. He looks up in the sky, tired, alone, and scared and screams “F*** faith, EARN IT” to whoever or whatever is out there. It kind of blew me away, because by that point you completely understand why he says it. How many tests can one man take?

Neeson is fantastic as Ottway, and without him, this is an entirely different film. Bradley Cooper was originally slated to play the role, and the movie would have been laughable if that were the case. Neeson has an air of melancholy and a sense of authority about him that is perfectly suited to Ottway. It’s no secret that Neeson tragically lost his wife a few years back, and he clearly draws on that in this role. As for the hand wringers who worry that Neeson is now stereotyped as these badass action heroes, who cares? He’s damn good at it. Though Neeson carries the movie, the supporting actors are very good, namely Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo.

Director Joe Carnahan (The A-Team, Narc) missteps a bit with the pacing of the film, but for the most part, he does an admirable job with the material. The plane crash scene was as scary as any I’ve seen, and the disarray and shock following the wreck was completely harrowing. Carnahan had the benefit of filming in Vancouver, and the cold and the wind are palpable. The biggest disappointment is the CGI wolves. For reasons I can’t ascertain, no one has been able to render a convincing CGI wolf to this day. They always seem a bit off, so be prepared for that. Thankfully their appearance is kept to a minimum. Lots of the tension arises from hearing them.

The action set pieces are thrilling, but it’s the humanization of the characters where he really excels. This is the type of movie we would usually find disposable characters. You might know their name, but nothing else before they get picked off. Here we get to know each of the men-how many kids they have, if they are married, etc. A few scenes that take place over a campfire reminded me of the close intimacy that the men in Jaws developed while on the boat. In both cases the men are scared out of their minds, and quickly build meaningful relationships. In The Grey, it takes a while for a few of the men peel away their false bravado and lower their defenses toward one another. It’s only after Ottway posits that it is okay to admit you are scared shitless that the men become a more cohesive unit.

The Grey features a lot of elements from horror, action, adventure, survival and drama to create a wonderful hybrid film. It’s a welcome January surprise that skews toward a male audience, but I think women can appreciate the humanistic component of the film. It should be a crowd pleaser, though audiences will be frustrated with the ending.  *Hint* Be sure to wait through the final credits for a final shot.

Rating 4/5 The Grey is rated R. Directed by Joe Carnahan. Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers. Starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo.

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