Thursday, February 9, 2012

Movie Review: The Grey

The Grey *** ½
Directed by: Joe Carnahan.
Written by:  Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers based on Jeffers short story.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Ottway), Dallas Roberts (Hendrick), Frank Grillo (Diaz), Dermot Mulroney (Talget), Nonso Anozie (Burke), Joe Anderson (Flannery), Ben Bray (Hernandez), James Badge Dale (Lewenden).

The Grey is a thrilling man vs. nature movie, where the line between the men and the wolves who are hunting them is dangerously thin. When we first meet Ottway (Liam Neeson), and learn that he works as a marksman for an oil company drilling way up North – his jump is essentially to shoot wolves before they can attack the other workers, he describes himself, and his co-workers, as men unfit for mankind. That`s a fairly good description – at least at first. The men we meet are hard, seemingly emotionless, who spend a good deal of time making sure all the other men know just how tough they are. When their plane crashes on their way home, only a few of them survive. They gather what they can at the crash site, but know that the chances of being found are slim to none, so they`ll need to make the trek South on foot. Their journey is hastened by the fact that wolves seem to be circling. Ottway tells them not to worry – the wolves are most likely just passing through, smelt the dead bodies, and decided to have a free meal. Unless they are close to their den, they probably won`t attack them. But as first one and then a second are attacked and killed by the wolves, it becomes clear that this wolf pack will not rest until they`ve killed the survivors of the plane crash.

The Grey is one of the only movies I can recall where the people become more human instead of less, as they are pushed to their limits. Most of the time, the logic of the movies is that people are civilized because of civilization and societal demands on them. Once those barriers are gone, they fall into a primal, animalistic frenzy. Think of Lord of the Flies for the most famous example of this type of story. But The Grey works the opposite way. At first, these men seem hard and emotionless – one of them, Diaz (Frank Grillo) seems to be a particular hard ass, who pretty much goes insane for a while. When, after two of their numbers have been killed by a wolf, and the group finally kills one of the wolves own, Grillo goes further than the rest, deliberately trying to antagonize the wolves. We get the feeling that this group of men really are barely above the level of the wolves.

Yet, over the course of the movie, these men become more human to the audience, and each other. These men do not even know each other`s first name, and do not much care. But as the wolves get closer, and more and more of their numbers fall, either to the wolves or other hazards in the wild, they let their barriers down, and become closer to each – by opening up. The wolves remain wild animals – merciless, vicious, cruel and violent, because that is their nature. But while the men try to come across that way, when pushed to the limit, they find their humanity, instead of losing it.
I realize now that I have spent most of this review making The Grey sound like a pretentious film, and it is far from that. This is a movie with a primal power to it; one that haunts you long after the movie is over. It is a movie that leaves no real hope for the audience – it doesn`t leave you feeling good, but instead emotionally drained. Directed by Joe Carnahan, who has specialized in machismo so far in his career (from good in Narc, to awful in The A-Team), The Grey is his best film so far, because it`s not just all about posturing. Instead, these characters, which seem so much like caricatures at the beginning of the movie, get to you because they open up. Had these characters not been as three dimensional as they are, then The Grey would have just been an exercise in terror – a great, stylish one sure, but little else. But because the characters – especially Liam Neeson, who delivers his best performance in years here – become real to us, we share their sense of dread, their sense of inevitable death. They fight hard against these wolves, but they know the odds are against them – and so do we. The movie ends at exactly the right place. Any longer, and the film would just be too depressing, too dark, too hopeless. While this looks like just a movie about men vs. wolves, it becomes so much more than that.

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