Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day
I thought that writer-director Joe Carnahan had peaked very early with the excellent Narc, and I was beginning to think less and less of him after the amusing but woefully self-indulgent Smokin’ Aces and the just plain woeful big screen adaptation of The A-Team. Then along comes The Grey and all of that early promise is rekindled with enough fire and brimstone to make the Devil tremble and sweat with fear. He now brings to the screen a semi-existential anthem to death, with an added wallop of primal adrenaline and rugged outdoor carnage. It is not easy viewing and you can’t just assume that things will turn out okay at the end. The very theme running through the film is that potent mix of the instinct to survive spiked with the certain knowledge that you will die at some point. It’s all about how you face that dark fact.
We are in the land of snow and ice. After The Thing so recently, we probably think that we can handle this sort of environment like pros. But we’d best guess again.
Liam Neeson is John Ottway, a specialised sniper assigned to protect the workers at an oil drilling station way over in the blizzards of Alaska from dangerous wild animals that may stray too close. At the end of a tour, he and a bunch a ragged, frost-nipped engineers board a plane to take them back to civilisation, but a severely inconvenient bout of turbulence soon puts paid to any well-earned R & R and deposits them amid flaming debris and a stack of bodies smack bang in the middle of nowhere. Very quickly, Ottway assumes command in this frozen dead zone and, putting aside his own emotional problems, he tries to work out a plan of survival for himself and the terrified group of lost souls that has risen, ghoul-like, from the ashes. But his plans are torn to shreds within hours as it becomes horribly apparent that they are stuck within the territory of a pack of extremely cunning and ferocious wolves. Ottway knows a thing or two about these animals … and he’s not too proud to admit that he’s terrified of them. He knows they’ve got a dreadful fight on their hands and that the odds are stacked against the men.
With his rifle shattered, food scarce and shelter very, very far away, he must lead an ever-dwindling band of survivors across miles of open country, beset at all times by horrendous blizzards and under the ceaseless attack from the wolves that dog them every treacherous step of the way. Who is The Grey? Is it Neeson’s drawn and haggard outdoorsman? Is it the collective pack of wolves? Or is it the hinterland between life and death, hope and despair that the story exists within?
For me, it is all of them. An emotional and psychological vortex from which the only escape is the ultimate sacrifice. The Grey, therefore, is not your average action-adventure.
There’s been some talk about the trailer painting a different picture of this survival odyssey than is actually the case when you sit down and watch it unfold, but the truth is that Carnahan’s film, based upon the short story Ghost Walker by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who co-wrote the screenplay with him, has lots of action in it, lashings of white-knuckle suspense and a truly pervading sense of dread that simply never dissipates. The plane-crash, itself, is violent and terrifying, a real rush of furiously grinding metal and searing panic, and there are the inevitable conflicts within the group that typify this sort of movie, but this is still a man-against-nature tale that takes in huge amounts of the brilliant bear thriller, The Edge, as well as maintaining a sort of fantasy-horror atmosphere that has justifiably been likened to Jaws. Yet as much as it drags us by the scruff of our frostbitten necks through increasingly more violent animal encounters, and over harsh, unyielding terrain, it claws its way deep inside the macho exteriors of these tough ice-jocks to lay bare their vulnerable souls to last-minute examination … not judgement. Carnahan’s screenplay seeks to expose the agony of what it means to face a terrible death and the weird fear and guilt that tortures those who survive still further. Set against the raw and captivating landscape of British Columbia standing in for the Alaskan wastes, with the cast genuinely plunging into ice-cold rivers, through forests of lacerating wood, over deep ravines that would make even Tom Cruise baulk and across strength sapping fields of snow, this is a film that feels genuinely cold and incalculably hostile.
So the environment, itself, is a bonafide enemy that we learn to curse … but the real threat, the real terror comes howling out of the night, and takes no prisoners.
The wolves are sensational. We have a combination of real ones, CG ones and even animatronic ones, courtesy of Greg (The Walking Dead) Nicotero and his creative chums at KNB. They are big. Really big. And they are folklore scary. Falsely maligned and misrepresented throughout history these beautiful and sensitive creatures may have been, but if the Big Bad of yore looked anything like this bunch of monstrous lupines then you can easily see why so many legends sprang up about him. After being severely nipped by one of the blighters, Ottway replies “Well, I’m not going to turn into a Wolf Man,” in reply to a companion’s dumb enquiry about the effects of his wound. One or two CG shots of the pack leader stand out like a sore thumb, but who cares when the beasts look this damn freaky? Regular readers may recall my fascination, nay obsession, with all things wolfish … and even if I still say that the animals seen in Wolfen remain the best and most frightening onscreen incarnation (and they are all real), I have to applaud the way that Carnahan and Co. depict and visualise their devil-pack here.
“Don’t move. Just stare right back at them,” advises Ottway as the wolves come in from the shadows to sniff their supper in the first great face-off. The gradual illumination of the evil green eyes of the pack filling the darkness of the frame ahead of the men, then slowly winking out, pair-by-feral-pair, as they retreat to plot the intruders’ cruel annihilation, is a sensational mood-setter for the hopelessly mismatched hunt to follow. Suddenly we know that there is something fantastical about this pack, something infernally cunning. Their tormenting of the men during one riveting night-time sequence is a bravura assault on the nerves, Carnahan staging the stand-off with an almost supernatural frisson of the purest skin-prickling. You don’t have that cosy feeling of being separated from the onscreen conflict – you feel part of the battered and bleeding band of awe-filled survivors. You feel, to put it bluntly … like fresh meat caught out in the open. This sequence alone is enough to guarantee nightmares.
Carnahan knows how to use his wolves too, without ever over-selling them. The brazen picking off of a straggler who has fallen behind his comrades, with the two attackers seen materialising like predatory ghosts from the grey gloom as they move in, at speed, for the kill. The massed lupine charge as the wolves flank the survivors desperate to make it off the snow-covered plateau to the potential cover of the tree-line. The alpha male coming in close to the fire to literally eyeball his potential next course, centuries of instinct colliding head-on with bogus culture and civilisation in a realm where the former will always reign supreme. The pack virtually waiting for one poor guy to come down to them – the hard way – and the fact that even when you can’t see or hear them, they are only ever just out of sight.
Carnahan also understands that he must keep their attacks as unpredictable as possible. When they come, they are alarmingly quick and confusing. Only one early slaying can we see coming from a mile away, whilst the rest are viciously oblique and often just plain unfair. There is blood on show, but the film is perhaps surprisingly light on the gore. Bodies flail about and muzzles dip in, but the kills are blurred tumults of fang and fur. A couple of deaths aren’t even wolf-related, but they are no less harrowing to behold. Ottway informs us that wolves are the only creatures that will seek revenge, other than Man. I recall something similar being claimed about Killer Whales in the all-too-often unsung Orca, Killer Whale from 1977, but it is certainly true that the canine/lupine mentality is such that it has definite feelings, a sense of family and individuality and it remembers both kindness and aggression shown towards it. Thus, the pack’s prime motivation to drive the humans out of their patch – three-hundred square miles, folks – or kill them in the process is completely acceptable, as is the sinister rage they exhibit when one of their number is taken out. The shark in Jaws becomes a demon, of course, with a personal vendetta, yet it never really strays too far from the capabilities that a really big Great White would have. Likewise, Carnahan never depicts his wolves doing anything that a wolf couldn’t or wouldn’t actually do in the circumstances. But their very aura is one of abject evil, which naturally elevates them to the status of monsters … which is precisely how you would regard them if you were caught in the same situation. Cute, these guys most certainly ain’t.
So much of this relies upon the sound of the predators rather than the sight of them.
The clichéd horror movie staple of howling in the wilderness is taken to new extremes. How many people have got one of those Natural World mood CDs featuring the haunting, twilight cadence of wolves on it? Well, forget that soothing level of ambient meditation. Once you’ve experienced the music supplied by these “children of the night”, you’ll never slip smoothly into one of those soothingly calm states again. The sound design is simply incredible. Not only do we have the padding footfalls and scampering of the beasts as they circle their prey, or the creaking of branches and twigs from somewhere off beyond the immediate periphery of our huddled and trembling group, but there is the completely incessant whirling of the savage Arctic winds. Sometimes this literally screams at you with absolutely buffeting waves of freakish realism, so much so that you can feel yourself getting pushed by it across the seat. The frequent stingers have a shock value that is swift and pulverising, immediate sonic fists that either crush you or smack you around the head. Make no mistake, The Grey will be a tremendous audio experience on Blu-ray and I’m already itching to have my cinema room transformed into a ferocious white-out nightmare.
Visually, we are in a monochromatic mire of incessantly falling snow, the white only punctuated by grey shapes or spatters of blood. The cinematography from Masanaobu Takayanagi, who worked on Warrior for Gavin O’Connor, is ravishing, but this is hardly the sort of imagery that will have you booking a flight to either British Columbia or Alaska, for that matter.
The performances are uniformly great, try and spot Dermot Mulroney in there, and two of them are nothing short of magnificent. The usual survival movie conceits of the group dynamic aren’t ignored, but they are thrown eagerly to the wind. In every drama of this kind, there is the practical, logical doer who becomes the leader of the group. There are the weaker ones who become the sheep, more than happy to be led. And there is the loud-mouthed idiot who challenges every decision made and does his utmost to hinder and hamper. Well, The Grey doesn’t play from a different rule-book in this regard but it does tweak the standards by a decent enough margin to make you really care about these people.
We already know that Liam Neeson gives the performance of a lifetime, and I will be adding my praise for the big man in a moment or two. But, for now, let’s look at what Frank Grillo brings to nature’s table. Playing the argumentative ex-con Diaz, he trades in that supremely charismatic and affably hangdog demeanour that he gave us as MMA trainer Frank Campana in Warrior for a verbally unstoppable wise-ass, blood-boiling persona that will have you balling your fists in frustration and preying for some flashing fangs to get to work on him. He effortlessly convinces as a constant annoyance … and then, folks, he gets the opportunity to spin the whole thing around so utterly that your heart will go out to him in the third act. The bad boy who goes on a journey of self-discovery – well, it’s nothing new, of course, but Grillo somehow makes it fresh, lyrical and a thing of exquisite pain and beauty. When Mulroney’s Talget tells of his daughter’s long hair tickling his face and of her adorable laugh, watch how Grillo melts in complete understanding, the last wall of his hard-man charade crashing down. We’re elated to have him on our side. And it is remarkable how a final handshake and a plain and simple “Thank you” linger long in the mind. If Ottway is the soul of the story, then Diaz is the last beating of its heart. Frank Grillo is a definite talent to look out for.
But, even above this, is the thing that this movie will always be remembered for. Neeson. Quite simply, he owns The Grey, and I am totally unashamed to run with the critical pack over this. You just can’t take your eyes off him. There is the harrowing look of death in his countenance and, although it has been remarked upon by others, you cannot shake the impression that this is Neeson, the man, pouring his real-life anger and grief at the loss of his wife, Natasha Richardson, into the character and at the screen. One spite-filled challenge towards the heavens hits an excruciating chord that actually made me wince in pity. A tough guy without a doubt, Neeson, nevertheless, possesses a dignity and a humanity that shines in his eyes with alarming conviction. Ottway has a letter to his wife that he penned just before the trip home. Miraculously, it survives the crash with him and he keeps it tucked away in a pocket. We are never entirely convinced that it provides a source of comfort for him, though – for all of the tantalising glimpses we have of its contents, and a brief narration of it at the opening of the film, it could just as well be a curse. He has dreams of her, whilst both asleep and whilst waking, as well as hallucinations and reveries of her lying beside him, and they provide an unnerving spectral sign of encouragement. Only at the end do we understand precisely what she means when she says to him “Don’t be afraid,” and this becomes a cyclic litany, the basis of an ethic we should all adhere to.
During one campfire scene when the few remaining men offer up fond reminiscences and pine for loved ones they long to see again, Ottway tells of the poem that his otherwise dispassionate and alcoholic, yet clearly loving father composed, and its simple verse, seen at the top of this review, becomes a mantra for the acceptance of fate. Regardless of how contrived such a device might seem, it is remarkable how powerful it is, and during one acute recitation of it, I found it incredibly moving.
Both Carnahan and Neeson set their agenda early on when Ottway eases a gravely injured man found in the wreckage of the plane across the gulf from life and into the waiting arms of death. It won’t be hard to work out just how the sniper got to be so well-versed in the ways of soothing over this terrifying transition, but this does not take away from what is a tremendously sobering and deeply affecting scene that resonates strongly throughout what will follow.
Some moments are undoubtedly formulaic, yet they work just the same. For instance, there is the tit-for-tat sequence of an unseen, but horribly heard challenge to the alpha male of the wolf pack getting viciously put down that is then mimicked by a very similar human drama straight afterwards. And you won’t win any prizes for guessing what is going to happen when the group attempt a perilous gorge-crossing. But the balance is maintained with plenty of scenarios that don’t play by the rules.
When Diaz finds his primal rage and heroically taunts the pack by howling back at them and flinging them a bloody trophy of his own, the victory is cathartic, but short-lived. Just listen as the pack then hurl a terrifying barrage of howls, growls, snarls and rasps back over the snowy ridge, and watch as their combined breath sends icy plumes into the night sky. This is one of the most gut-shrivelling and haunting moments I’ve seen in recent cinema, and I shudder at the memory of it now as I write. The gathering-up of the wallets of the dead becomes a tantric omen that reaches a heartrending conclusion, and the image of a cut and torn Ottway, knife in one hand and the broken shards of miniature in-flight spirits taped to the other, is fast becoming a legendary icon of courage of defiance. I should point out that the film gains an epic depth from its refusal to pander to the multiplex popcorn crowd, leaving you with no firm conclusions at the end other than the coppery taste of blood in your mouth and skin that feels frozen to the touch. Some people don’t appreciate this approach … but I adore it, and find the film immensely satisfying for what it implies just as much as what it shows.
Marc Streitenfeld composed for Ridley Scott’s rather disappointing take on Robin Hood and, to be honest, I was a bit disheartened when I saw his name was attached to this production. (Scott is actually one of The Grey’s producers.) But he has turned my initial thoughts completely upside down and delivered a wonderful score that perfectly captures the bleakness and hostility of the environment, the fearful savagery of the situation and, most indelibly, the emotional blight and personal despair that comes to dominate the narrative. Quite weirdly, yet poetically I suppose, the main recurring theme of pain and tragedy that denotes Ottway and his own personal grief is very similar to Van Cleave’s repeating motif for the forlorn spaceman shipwrecked on a desolate planet in Robinson Crusoe On Mars.It is a ghostly string-led dirge that embodies the crumbling resilience of a man whose spirit had been broken even before the plane dropped out of the sky … and yet it is also suffused with a sense of raw heroism that is as earnest as it is doom-laden. It is hardly a charitable or optimistic score, but then the film has no need of that. This isn’t a jolly wilderness “adventure” in any conceivable way, and Grizzly Adams is not going to suddenly emerge from the woods and whisk the survivors off to his cosy cabin. It is grim, horrifying and relentlessly downbeat. It speaks of loneliness and grief, and yet even here there is a haunting beauty.
Once you know the parameters of the story and how far it will go visually, another viewing really takes you deeper into the core of what is actually a stunningly emotional voyage into the heart of despair and spiritual redemption. The very plot of a survival yarn inevitably throws up questions of morality versus mortality, and forces you to confront your own limitations and your own demons. Essentially, and ironically, it is the nature of the beast for this type of story. Joe Carnahan hasn’t found anything particularly new or unique to say about the human condition, but this is not the point. The Grey seeks, instead to reinforce the values and the sense of pride that we should all have within us to enable us to face the traps and terrors that fate can throw in our path. Both Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo rise way above the genre tropes and find something devoutly poignant within their depiction of the human spirit, and their final scenes help the film transcend to something that leaves many others of this type far, far behind.
The Grey falls short of being a masterpiece … but this is a brilliant, gripping and incredibly moving thriller that is destined to be looked at and re-evaluated in the years to come. I recommend it wholeheartedly and I, for one, cannot wait to see it again.
A word of advice … stick around until the credits have run their course because there is a final epitaph that is brief, but eerily beautiful.
The Grey provides a thundering start to the year. A powerful, savage and relentless depiction of Man's tenuous foothold in the natural world, and a profound examination of the grim acceptance of Fate.
A terrifying pack of monstrous wolves plague the desperate survivors of a plane crash in the Alaskan wastes. They, and the elements, pick the men off, one by one in set-pieces that are genuinely nightmarish and horrifying. But as the group soldier-on against adversity, their adventure becomes consumed with the struggle against their own mortality, and the understanding that death is inescapable. Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo give outstanding, award-worthy performances in a yarn so cold and rugged that it will leave you with frostbite in your soul. Joe Carnahan directs with frightening vigour and intensity, delivering ruthless and mean-spirited set-pieces that rock the senses, but he also ensures that the film is filled with haunting introspection and dark psychology, and the resulting ambience that it attains is one of profound, thought-provoking melancholia.
Already a victim of mismanaged marketing, rather like Drive was last year, you should nevertheless understand that there is still lots of action and violence to cringe through, and that the film's pace is never less than riveting, but The Grey is so much more than a mere adventure movie. It is an ominous meditation on the fragility of existence. It breaks through the charade of machismo and exposes the essence of a man's humanity when he sees the end coming for him. But, make no mistake, it is also a ferocious chiller that may not have done the image of the wolf much good, but provides some of the most exciting and downright scary encounters with the predator this side of the Grimm's Fairy Tales.
Part horror film, part shattering character study, The Grey will haunt you for many nights to come. It offers no answers and no salvation, and yet you come away from it enriched and humbled.
It is simply awesome.
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