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The Grey Review

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Part horror film, part shattering character study, The Grey will haunt you for many nights to come

by Chris McEneany May 12, 2012

  • Movies review


    The Grey Review

    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. What it all boils to is how you choose to face that dark fact.

    I’ve given this movie a lot of coverage already – see the track-by-track score/movie analysis in the CD review for the most comprehensive study – and what follows for this UK region B release from EIV is my original cinema write-up, just with a little bit more meat on its bones. You know how these things work by now.

    We are in the land of snow and ice. After the remake of The Thing so recently, we probably think that we can handle this sort of environment like pros. But we’d best guess again. The Grey points out just how Man doesn’t fit into the grand scheme of things in the natural world.

    Liam Neeson is John Ottway, a specialised sniper assigned to protect the workers at an oil drilling station way out 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 heavy 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. So 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. The story is all about finding yourself trapped within an emotional and psychological vortex from which the only escape is the ultimate sacrifice. The structure of the two “packs” is observed, broken down and reduced to the most primal of cores. Souls are laid bare and bravado is stamped flat. Any semblance of heroism is chewed-up almost immediately, leaving only the liars and the fools to peddle their institutionalised machismo in the face of mocking consequence. Survival-flick meets art-house character study in a terrifying, upsetting head-on collision. The Grey, therefore, is not your average action-adventure.

    There’s been a lot of talk about the trailer painting a different picture of this wilderness 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 relinquishes its icy grip. 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 the shock-tactics of Jaws. Yet as much as it drags us by the scruff of our frostbitten necks through increasingly more savage animal encounters, and over harsh, unyielding terrain, it claws its way deep inside the macho exteriors of these tough ice-jocks to expose their vulnerable souls to last-minute examination of how they have lived their lives … and not a judgement. Carnahan’s screenplay seeks to reveal the agony of what it means to face a terrible death and the weird fear and guilt that tortures those who survive longer than others. 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 in the thrall of immense sub-zero winds, 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 it doesn’t take 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 “Maybe I’ll turn into a werewolf,” 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 (Strippers vs Werewolves, anyone?) … 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 ones, I should add), I have to applaud the way that Carnahan and Co. depict and visualise their devil-pack here. Most remarkably of all, when you listen to the director and his editors discuss the film in their tremendous commentary, you’ll learn that some of the shots you would swear were of real wolves hurtling across the frame are actually of their CG cousins.

    “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, lit by the fiery glow of the apocalyptic wreckage. 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. This tension is supremely ratcheted-up when it becomes abundantly clear that the pack takes things personally, and that they are enjoying their instinctive superiority over the humans. 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. As they howl and growl just out of sight, you get a real sense of how primitive man must have felt as he sheltered deep within a cave, huddled away from the unforgiving terrors of the world around him. This sequence alone, like a race memory, is enough to guarantee nightmares.

    Carnahan knows how to use his wolves without ever over-selling them. There is the brazen picking off of a straggler who has fallen behind his comrades, with the first two attackers seen materialising like predatory ghosts from the grey gloom as they move in, at speed, for the kill. Just like that – a man torn down without ceremony or mercy, like a deer. Then there is 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. Most sinister of all though, is when the big alpha male comes 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. As a frightened man steps back, he steps forward, asserting ever more dominance over the situation. Watch closely and you’ll see that the animal is working out just the top dog of this rival pack actually is. Then there is the heartbreaking impact of 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, you know that they are only ever just out of sight. Originally, there was to have been much more footage of the wolves moving about at the periphery of the frame, but Carnahan wisely pruned-out all but the most required to keep us constantly looking over our shoulders.

    He 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, but even this one is sure to make you leap out of your skin by the sheer timing of the shock. Just like knowing the exact second that Ben Gardner’s head is going to loll out of the wrecked hull of his boat in Jaws doesn’t save your heart from exiting your mouth when it suddenly appears. 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. That said, the flash-cut of savage teeth digging into the side of a screaming noggin is an image that won’t soon dissipate. A couple of deaths aren’t even wolf-related, but they are no less harrowing to behold. We are informed 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 Shark would have. Likewise, Carnahan never depicts his wolves doing anything that a wolf couldn’t or wouldn’t actually do in the circumstances. He is not trying to demonise the species as so many critics have asserted with misinformed, knee-jerk idiocy. The wolves are, indeed, a metaphorical depiction of the cruelty of inescapable Fate, and he is quick to point out that although the film was unwisely marketed as Neeson vs Wolves, the pack is merely symbolic of the ever-presence of Death. 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 terrifying experience 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 so smoothly into one of those calmly soothed states again. All manner of bestiary have been employed to create the cacophony of predation, even the voice of a sportsman friend of Carnahan’s, whose remixed howl becomes one of the most chilling to pierce the frozen night. But this is all part of a sound design that 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 your seat. Add to this the frequent stingers that 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 was one of the standout theatrical audio experiences of the last twelve months, and on Blu-ray I’m elated to report that your cinema room is very definitely transformed into a ferocious white-out nightmare, full of gasp-inducing speed-bumps.

    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 framing of the beleaguered group is always incredible. Carnahan and Takayanagi paint them in lots of medium shots against this breathtakingly wide landscape, isolating their machismo even further and always instilling the impression that these men don’t belong here. Pockets of blue sky peek through, but they are swiftly engulfed by the ever-pressing lid of stifling grey and white. The decision to go grainy and dismal may not appeal to all, but this reflects the emotional and psychological fugue that the men find themselves in as much as it does the swirling, snow-obscured environment.

    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 and pay them a lot of attention. The script is economical and liberally graced with ad-libs. When some nasty wolf-meat is gulped down in a short-lived victory banquet, one of the survivors quips, “I’m more of a cat person!” and the genuine laughter of the rest of the cast is one of the few properly tension-dissipating moments in the entire film. Kudos to Carnahan for allowing such instances to occur, and for keeping them.

    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, a perennial thorn in Ottway’s side … and then, folks, he gets the opportunity to spin the whole thing around so utterly and so authentically 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 at last. 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. His performance is so good that you feel that you’ve really gotten to know the man. Watch how, in one long take, he is able to show how Diaz reaches a hugely profound and personal decision. I’m not talking about a Bob Hoskins round-the-houses “session of expression” a la the classic finale of The Long Good Friday, Grillo internalises almost everything, yet we can still feel his emotional wrangling even from a distance. Amazing. Frank Grillo is a definite talent to look out for with a gift that puts many leading men to shame. And with him taking on the Charles Bronson role in Joe Carnahan’s remake of Death Wish, more wonderful stuff is sure to come.

    But, even above this, the thing that this movie will always be remembered for is Liam 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 hurling it out at the screen. One spite-filled challenge towards the heavens hits an excruciating chord that actually made me wince in pity and a strange sort of guilt. 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 what it contains 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 brilliantly acute recitation of it, I found it incredibly moving. In a tale as dark and grim as this, moments of such inner beauty and hope, no matter fleeting, become emotional rocks that we can all take away.

    What is so magnetic about Neeson’s performance is that the sheer economy of it. He practically throws away the biggest moments with magisterial ease, when so many contemporaries would have milked them for all they were worth – and this only makes them all the more devastating. One painful exchange between him and Dallas Roberts’ Henrick about the immaculately staged suicide bid we see at the start of the film would have been completely destroyed if Neeson had opted to have Ottway divulge any of the inner demons that plague him. As it stands, the moment is electrifying in its sparsity of dialogue and in the conveyance of feeling that we get just from just the eyes of both men.

    When Oscar comes sniffing around, if both Neeson and Grillo aren’t up for statuettes then the Academy should be thrown to the wolves.

    We can’t escape the grim tone of the movie. It is designed, right from the start, not to let us off the hook. Both Carnahan and Neeson set their agenda almost immediately with the sight of a rifle-barrel in the leading man’s mouth. This image, alone, should help prepare you for the despair that will continually erode any shred of hope along the journey. I love the way that it only is the sound of a wolf howling in the distance that thwarts the attempt to take his own life. The film takes poetry and symmetry as its scouts to guide both the plot and the emotions, and this eerie moment is clearly destiny calling the sniper once more into the fray. Detractors cite the lunacy of much that follows, with Ottway’s tactics often appearing to be the most dangerous course of action to take. But they are missing the point … this is not about surviving. It is about finding the strength of character and the spirit to face the inevitable with as much dignity and pride as you can muster. As such, this is not for everyone. 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 all that follows in what is, in essence, a treatise on facing death ... as opposed to defeating it and walking off into the sunset at the end.

    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 and subsequently wrong-foot you.

    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 years, 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, ironically accentuating the film’s conflict of faith versus realism, 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 and 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. I now look forward to hearing what he comes up with for Scott’s Prometheus.

    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 what he’s striving for. 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 lagging far, far behind.

    Carnahan needs to be applauded for not taking the easy route. With Neeson riding the crest of a pugilistic action-man wave in this phase of his career, it isn’t hard to see how the film could have turned out. The unusual and debate-raising path that he took instead is highly praise-worthy in this era of the dementedly commercial, but the performances, alone, elevate this to classic status.

    The Grey falls just a little bit 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, personally, regard it as one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Some won’t be impressed with it though, and for a variety of reasons, I suppose. But I love it and have argued its validity since its theatrical debut. It now ventures out into the wilds of home video appreciation, where wolves of a different sort lie in wait.

    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 and connects brilliantly with a shot seen at the start. Thus, that poetic symmetry glistens like frozen blood across a mesmerising odyssey of life confronting death.