THE GREY (2012)
Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, James Badge Dale, Anne Openshaw
MPAA Rating: (for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 1/27/12
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 26, 2012
There is a scene soon after the inciting incident of The Grey that firmly establishes the film as more than a simple variation on the man vs. nature conflict. In it, our resourceful and courageous hero stares a man, suffering from a massive and bleeding wound, straight in the face and tells him that what the man is experiencing is his death. It won't come in a matter of years, months, weeks, or even minutes; this man will die right here, right now, in the wreckage of a crashed plane, surrounded not by people he knows and loves but by people he may have only known for a matter of months or maybe only weeks. It is not ideal, but, then again, is it ever?
Director Joe Carnahan observes the intensely intimate scene in close-ups. There's the fear in the dying man's eyes giving way to serenity and finally succumbing to some physical, psychological, or spiritual pain—or a combination of all, some, or none of the above. There are the faces of the men around him, wanting to avoid looking at him but compelling themselves to stare at the face that portends their own fate. The hero's eyes are locked into those of his ward, telling him the truth without any optimistic flourish and guiding him through thoughts to distract his mind from what's happening.
The scene, boldly penned by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (His short story "Ghost Walker" provides the basis for the film), sets a tone of immediate inevitability. With the story's medley of generic character types, cruel setting, and equally insensible central antagonists, it does not take any stretch of the imagination to determine how the film will advance. With a group of men—scared and out of their element—in a frigid wasteland and a pack of wolves defending their territory from what they perceive to be a threat, it is a given that the screenplay will pick them off one by one. It's the atmosphere created by the mortal dread within these men that sells the convention.
In a remote part of Alaska, Ottway (Liam Neeson—determined yet tired, coarse yet compassionate) works as a guard of sorts at an oil drilling facility. His job is to protect the workers from predatory wolves that do not appreciate having men on their land. The exposition is dreamlike, as Ottway goes about his daily routine, shoots a wolf (The way he places his hand on the chest of the dying beast echoes the aforementioned scene in plane wreck), and writes a letter to and imagines himself with his wife (Anne Openshaw), who is no longer in his life. He slams back a drink at the onsite bar and wanders off into the night.
This is a man who believes the best parts of his life are behind him, struggling to find a reason—any reason—to keep going. It arrives as the workers at the drill site are on a plane to head back to civilization. Ottway has no patience for them until some turbulence hits, causing the plane to rip open in a deafening roar (The reveal, like so much of the first act, throws us off-kilter, as Ottway lies across the seats in the safety of the fuselage only to suddenly have a view of the ground rushing behind him). After he awakens, he finds himself the de facto leader of several survivors.
Their names, characteristics, and histories are mostly unimportant, and Carnahan and Jeffers reveal only the essentials. Diaz (Frank Grillo) is the antagonistic type—a tough guy for whom the last thing he wants to do is to admit he might be scared. As the ancillary characters die off, Diaz begins to question Ottway's authority and eventually challenges him, before, of course, the wolves assert their own power over the situation.
Talget (Dermot Mulroney) is more subdued and keeps moving forward with a vision of his daughter's long hair in his mind. He's convinced the dead of their party have moved on to a sweet hereafter, though Diaz vigorously argues against the notion. Ottway is undecided on the matter, and in the mindset of a true survivalist, he insists the men keep their concentration on the here and now unless they want to find out for sure in the immediate future.
The rest of the cast consists of Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), a witness to Ottway's own despair on the night before their departure, Burke (Nonso Anozie), a larger man who's slowly wearing away from a lack of oxygen, Flannery (Joe Anderson), a slimy opportunist who doesn't understand why Ottway would want to hold on to the wallets of the dead for any reason other than taking the money within them, and an assortment of others who are too slow for or caught off-guard by the gray wolves. The wolves themselves—seen mostly from a distance, in shadow, or in flashes viscera—become an almost demonic force against the men. Their attacks, perfectly timed with some moment of weakness on the part of the survivors, seem almost to mock their impossible situation.Naturally, they begin to die, either at the teeth of the wolves or by the forces of nature as they try to get further away of the wolves' den (climbing across a chasm, getting too close to a surging river, etc.). These scenes are routine and anticipated, but what's less expected is that the film has the mindset of a weary philosopher behind it. The Grey might not fully earn its ambiguous finale (The setup, along with the oft-repeated refrain of "Live and die on this day," instantly brings to mind Schrödinger's poor/fine cat), but the very existence of one forces us to confront what's lurking in the shadows.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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