Directed by Joe Carnahan
Survivalist tales that have made their way onto film and into the multiplex over the years tend to have more emotional resonance than your typical genre fare. Whether they are based on fact or purely fiction, these stories tap into the primal drive in all of us to simply stay alive no matter what the cost. Watching characters onscreen bond together during the most dire of situations forces us as viewers to imagine what we would do, how we would react, and what we are ultimately capable of in the wake of a tragic accident that suddenly hurls us into the grasp of an ungovernable wilderness that doesn’t care if we live or die.
Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is the newest addition to the survivalist sub-genre, sitting alongside coming-of-age films like White Water Summer while also showing a kinship with horror entries such as The Final Terror and Ravenous. The Grey also never gives in to melodrama, staying grounded in the realism of Frank Marshall’s depiction of cannibalism in the ‘90s classic Alive. But the film that probably shares the most in common with Liam Neeson’s latest entry in badassdom would have to be Lee Tamahori’s The Edge, the David Mamet-penned thriller wherein Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin are hunted relentlessly by a Kodiac Grizzly.
The setup is usually the same: a harrowing and intense plane crash, a group dynamic slowly begins to form and then break apart due to constant peril and fear, a brave leader emerges and rescues the surviving few. Applause. In The Grey when the plane does begin to go down, it’s done with interior shots only and focuses mainly on Neeson’s character, Ottway. There are no epic effects shots of the plane’s wings being ripped off after crashing into a rocky mountainside, and on a subconscious level the somewhat intimate depiction of the wreck foreshadows future moments in the film that are much more personal and self-reflective in nature. These moments focus on the internal thoughts of Ottway surrounding his wife, moments that serve as poetic reminders of what his character is fighting for and, more importantly, how lost he is as an individual. Except for one brief sequence we only see imagery from Ottway’s past and perspective, but a number of characters get to reflect on their lives also, allowing them to tap into the good in them and find the will to go on.
Frank Grillo plays an ex-con working on the cursed oil rig these men are returning from as the film begins, and his character, Diaz, is the clear standout next to Neeson’s melancholy Ottway. Diaz transforms from being a scared anonymous punk into a respected member of the group as the film progresses. It is a star turn for Grillo, and viewers should expect to see him in many more memorable roles for years to come. Dermot Mulroney has some great moments throughout the film with Dallas Roberts and Joe Anderson also turning in great performances.
As you might have guessed by now, The Grey is much more intelligent than your typical thriller – and it’s a more effective film because of it. One of the main themes even deals with the idea of God versus the individual and how faith, or the lack thereof, is an asset or a disadvantage when you’re fighting to survive the elements and keep a fierce pack of rabid wolves from tearing you apart. In these circumstances is self-reliance hindered by faith? Will you fight as hard as you need to if you believe in a higher power that may intervene to save you? Looking at who dies and who survives, Carnahan and his co-screenwriter Ian MacKenzie Jeffers do well to answer that question as well as using it as the basis for Neeson’s most powerful moment in the film – a moment that is probably the essential scene in The Grey.
So, is it a thinking man’s monster movie? Carnahan himself says The Grey touches on the outskirts of horror, and the moments and sequences involving the wolves are certainly crafted with that in mind. Carnahan wants to scare you in these scenes, and the staging, direction, and design of the wolves by KNB (who else?) prove to be very effective. Seeing how KNB usually gets all the credit when they are involved on a film, it should be mentioned that the majority of the wolves are enhanced through CGI by the guys over at Digital Dimension; and they do great work here. The wolves look larger than life, and their wild eyes and mangled fur do well to show that this pack has never been touched by the throes of civilization, making our human characters that much more threatening and foreign to them. The pitch black design of the Alpha male wolf is the closest thing to an actual monster in The Grey, and the standoff between Ottway and the beast throughout the film culminates in a satisfying way, but probably not how you expect if you’ve seen the trailers.
The ending of The Grey reaffirms the point that it is not the typical survival movie: The sum of its parts and its emotional resonance is greater and more profound than a simple man versus nature tale. The result is a film that subverts expectations, becoming a great character piece that isn’t afraid to show real pain and internal agony below the surface of an action film. The Grey still provides some genuine thrills and scares, but it’s ultimately about how a harrowing situation can rekindle the desire and lust for life within a once broken man who was just about ready to throw in the towel.
Oh … be sure to stay after the credits for an extra scene!
3 1/2 out of 5