– Summary –
Director : Joe Carnahan
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Liam Neeson, Wolves, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, Jacob Blair, Ben Bray, Anne Openshaw.
Approx Running Time : 117 Minutes
Synopsis: After surviving a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, a group of men must outfox a pack of hungry grey wolves, who are intent on making them that evenings meal.
What we think : Grim, bitter direction from Joe Carnahan is the key reason for me not enjoying this film – don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good film, and packs a bit of a wallop from time to time, but I just didn’t get “into” it as much as I think I should have. The ice-bound locale, the horror-film scares of the attacking wolves, and the lack of quality character building (even for Neeson’s character) ensured a film as isolationist as it is about isolation. It’s a hard film to categorize, and I’m inclined to say I felt ambivalent towards the whole thing, but I’d be writing The Grey off as simply another Neeson action misfire when there’s no real need to. It’s a quality production, it’s just not one for all.
Because punching a wolf looks cool, right?
Liam Neeson’s carving himself a nice little action-fare CV right at the minute. Not your typical, Jason Statham style B-movie action CV either; Neeson’s Hollywood standing could never allow him to descend to Statham-esque material, but when he does get into the hard, angry action frontier, he goes all out. It’s an unusual career path, although in light of the passing of Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, his career since then has taken a decidedly darker, more melancholy turn. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable, but if it delivers more films like this and Taken, then I’m all for it. The Grey, while not being a film I’m going to rave about to my friends, does what it needs to and gets on with it, delivering a Neeson vs Wolves narrative that tries too hard to venture into philosophical territory for my liking. It’s a harsh, survivalist story, a tale about the triumph (or lack thereof) of the human spirit when the odds are firmly, irrevocably stacked against you, and I believe a film too caught up in meandering about faith and fury in compartmentalized chunks than about delivering worthwhile characters.
John Ottway (Neeson) works as a sniper at an Alaskan oil drilling plant. Suicidal, he often has flashback to a time in bed with his wife; after nearly killing himself with his weapon, he’s interrupted by an attack on some men by a wolf. Later, on a flight back to Anchorage, the plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, killing the majority on board save for a small group of disparate employees, most of whom are unprepared to survive in the hostile conditions. With snow, frost and ice surrounding them, they huddle together in the wreckage of the plane, before they are attacked by a pack of grey wolves. Ottway, a long time hunter, realizes that they may have crashed near the wolves’ den, making the humans a potential target for continued attack perceived as a threat. They up stumps and make for a forest off in the distance, all the while pursued and hunted by the vicious killers. One by one, each member of their group is picked off or wounded, unable to continue, leaving the increasingly smaller human pack at the mercy of the larger wolf pack.
This impossible survival story is told in a fairly low-key way by the usually visually effusive Joe Carnahan, the man who gave us Narc, Smokin’ Aces and the recent remake of The A Team. Carnahan reins in his usual visual flair to present The Grey as gritty as possible. This isn’t a film of flashy extremes; instead, this is pure fear contained within white boundaries and snarling fangs. Post-crash, The Grey delivers a spectacle of minimalism in order to develop the characters – a factor which becomes inevitably pointless since each one is just destined to die off at varying points throughout the story. Carnahan recognizes the terror inherent in humans being so isolated, without any hope of rescue (or a very faint hope, at best), and plays up that angle with no superheroics, no last stand posturing and definitely no punching of wolves in the face (as alluded to in the trailer). The story revolves primarily around Neeson’s Ottway, although once the ensemble end up in the sleet and snow, things even out and everyone is given their moment in the…. ahem.. sun.
The Grey has plenty of things working in its favor. It’s believable – the people in this film, by and large, are credible (save for Frank Grillo’s Diaz, who’s pig-headedness is actually quite annoying, because there’s no way on Earth anybody would as stupid to try and think he’s all that and a bag of chips in this scenario), and the tension, terror and adrenaline-rush of fear they endure is palpable. Even if they are relatively bit-parts, each member of the cast delivers solid, believable performances, regardless of standing within the narrative. The screenplay, by Carnahan and Ian Jeffers (based on the short story by Jeffers, Ghost Walker) is light on detail about each of the members of the survivors, allowing the focus on Neeson to blossom as the situation becomes more and more dire. The wolf effects, a combination of practical and digital, are superb, and these creatures really are of the desolate wilderness – they’re unafraid of man, they hunt and have a perceived intelligence that makes them all the more adversarial.
While I thought the production values and performances by the cast were generally top class, there was something about The Grey that just stopped me embracing it as a classic of the genre. Perhaps it was the oppressive tone of the film (hell, the whole thing kicks off with Neeson attempting suicide), or perhaps it was the increasingly desperate, impossible fate-worse-than-death scenario to which there was never going to be a positive outcome, or just a depressing feeling that permeates the whole thing – which ever it was, or even a combination of all three, I just felt alienated by this film instead of drawn into it. Neeson, usually a terrific leading man and always watchable, comes across as partially un-heroic, partially a martyr, and entirely a man of indistinct motivations. I should add a caveat to that: Ottway’s motivations for his suicide and depressed mood are explained by the end of the film, although by then I felt it was too little, too late for me to suddenly start to care. I’d been bludgeoned by the deathly pall this film casts over everything.
What doesn’t work? Well, the key element that kicks the teeth of this film is the constant attempt to philosophize about the Meaning Of Life. The survivors discuss faith versus fate, touch on God and accepting one’s imminent demise, although the script can’t quite elevate the material into something worthwhile against such a horrible backdrop. Ottway’s repeated flashbacks to his wife, which appear to focus his direction each time things start to unravel; this doesn’t always work for the film, which often drags narratively towards the end as the numbers are reduced, and at one point I was actually praying for a wolf to attack and liven things up. The metaphorical elements of the script seem shoehorned into the film, almost as if the producers decided this film needed some kind of “grounding” to develop otherwise fairly simplistic characters. Whatever the motivation, this aspect of the film didn’t quite work for me.
I know this film received rave reviews in most quarters, and in a sense I can see why: this isn’t a film that fits a particular mold (reference is made to the more famous cannibal survival movie, 1993’s Alive, a moment of levity in an otherwise deadly serious film) and tries to be a sort-of action/intellectual blockbuster that doesn’t quite bust blocks. In another time, perhaps I might have appreciated the subtlety of the movie, and had it been more straightforward I could have even liked it for what it was, but as it stands, I couldn’t help but be alienated by the sodden pacing and sermonizing. Neeson is terrific in the role as written, although he’s a long way off dragging this film into true greatness on his own. Carnahan’s direction is also excellent, but I think this time he’s let down by a truly oppressive concept, a concept that has no room to breathe (perhaps that was the point, but meh….) and ultimately, left me cold.