Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Grey

THE GREY: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts (117 min.)

There exists a subgenre of action thrillers where Man is pitted against Nature in various ways.  These pictures can involve the plight of Man against the harsh elements, a battle against a certain beast, or perhaps both.  We all are familiar with these films and have surely seen one or more.  But I have never seen anything quite like The Grey.  It is one of the fiercest, most unforgiving, most nerve-rattling thrillers of its kind, a relentless action adventure that is as consistently tense as anything I can remember.  But there is something more at work in The Grey.  Somehow, this film manages to slow down the gears of kinetic thrills long enough to touch on philosophical musings about God, death, endurance and the struggle to survive.  And it all, somehow, worked for me.  Sharp discussions of existentialism and theology are at work against the backdrop of a pitiless environment.  That, and a few dozen bloodthirsty wolves.

Liam Neeson, the enduring and late-blooming action hero, an action star as bankable as any these days, stars at Ottway.  Ottway lives and works in a remote outpost as a sniper, protecting oil-drillers from wolves, shooting them before they can pounce on unsuspecting laborers.  "A job at the end of the World."  And Ottway, like most of the rogues gallery of drillers, has left a certain life behind for one reason or another, we aren't quite sure why.  This drilling outpost exists somewhere above Anchorage, Alaska, where the only men who could possibly be looking for and getting jobs are men hiding from something or trying to repair their lives through solitude.  These men board a plane one night headed back to Anchorage, apparently on some sort of leave.  But they never make it.  The plane crashes and scatter survivors throughout the wreckage.

Plane crashes have been dramatized in film before, but I challenge anyone to make a sequence more visually terrifying than the crash director Joe Carnahan pulls off here.  I found myself clenching my armrests, holding my breath as the disorientation overwhelmed the screen.  And once the plane settles into the snowbound landscape, Ottway gathers together the survivors to build a fire, check for more surviving passengers, and look for food.  And I must say the aftermath of the horrendous crash is no less intense.  The survivors are, in part, a cross section of personalities and types like always.  There is the African-American, the level-headed sidekick, the argumentative ex-con, the idiot, the weakling... Some of the actors are recognizable, like Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts (keep an eye on Dallas Roberts, I see big things for him).  Others not as much.  But they each have a character to bring to the story, and they have layers and backgrounds and mannerisms all their own, not stolen from the Supporting Character Five and Dime on a studio back lot.  I was fascinated by each in their own way, each at their own time.

The previews show us that Ottway and his men are being hunted by a pack of wolves.  These wolves are relentless and sometimes they seem almost sadistic in their assault on the survivors.  The wolves themselves were done through the magic of CGI, understandable because of the things they are asked to do.  But Carnahan handles the wolves perfectly, never concentrating of focusing on them quite long enough for their computer generation to be a distraction or pull you out of the film.  As these wolves show a pack mentality, so do the men as they fight to stay alive and unfrozen.  But there are other things which get these men; they aren't just picked off one by one by monstrous wolves.  Don't get me wrong, some of them are, but these characters drop off in various ways.  And one of the last to perish does so in a way that is quite daring for a genre film.  

There are brave choices all throughout The Grey, namely with the discussions these men have about faith and life and death, and where they stand on such heady subjects.  And yet, here they are, on alert constantly and threatened from all sides by vicious canine hunters.  It is a tricky balancing act between action and philosophy, but Carnahan nails them both with an intensity and a certain weight to the words of these scared men.  Neeson is wonderful in his lead role, but this is an ensemble piece which relies on the strength of the actors around him.  I didn't see a weak link in the group. 

The philosophical stretches might alienate a Saturday evening crowd, but The Grey is a smart action thriller, the very best of its kind of film.  It is a relief to see Carnahan return to his gritty roots, when he was directing Narc instead of Smokin' Aces.  He uses the brutal landscape of Northern Canada (where it was filmed) to isolate these men in an oppressive world of violent snow storms, imposing mountains, and dense forests.  Grey is most certainly the color of this desolate world.  The Grey may seem like your standard Man vs. Wild thriller, along the lines of pictures like The Edge or Cliffhanger, but forget about those films.  This is something all its own, something much heavier and more substantial, and not another January release I will soon forget.