‘The Grey’ With Liam Neeson Chills to the Bone
CHICAGO – Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” might cause you to think that the multiplex in which you’re seeing it has started skimping on the heat. As wind whips snow in below-freezing temperatures, Carnahan deftly conveys what it’s like to be trapped in a natural nightmare. There are no men in hockey masks or found footage, but “The Grey” is essentially a horror movie in which the standard array of victims is replaced by seven grizzled workers sent to the edge of the world and forced to fight to survive.
Relentlessly bleak, “The Grey” is a remarkable accomplishment in sustained dread. It is a film with almost no hope and each moment of survival feels like merely delaying the inevitable. Carnahan holds nothing back from his modern take on Jack London, making viewers question how they would respond in a similar situation (personally, I think I’d probably curl into a fetal position and freeze to death even if I’d like to think I’d start punching wolves). Driven by a fully-committed performance from the great Liam Neeson, the most-unexpected late-career action star of all time, “The Grey” is a solid piece of filmmaking that could have been a little bit tighter and a little more effective but it gets the job done.
Photo credit: Open Road
After an unusual, poetic prologue that I expect will seriously throw viewers who thought they were in for a more traditional action blockbuster, the plot of “The Grey” kicks in as a group of oil company workers take a bumpy flight deep into the Arctic Circle. The plane rips apart in mid-air, resulting in one of the most memorable crash scenes in the history of film. People scream, plane parts fly, and the sound is deafening – it is a truly terrifying sequence that really sets the stage for what’s to come.
John Ottway (Neeson) wakes up covered in snow, one of eight survivors of the crash. He is a natural leader, in no small part due to the fact that his job with the oil company is to protect the men from one of the most dangerous elements of their work – the wolves that surround them. One can pretty easily assume that if Ottway had been one of the two dozen or so people who died in the crash that the other survivors wouldn’t have lasted long. After a wolf attack, the emotionally unstable Ottway tells the other men — including the annoying Flannery (Joe Anderson), quiet Talget (Dermot Mulroney), loyal Henrick (Dallas Roberts), and the aggressive Diaz (Frank Grillo) – that they could have had the incredible misfortune of crashing in the kill territory of a pack of wolves. If the wolves feel like their space has been invaded, they will stop at nothing to tear the men apart. Not only do they have to fight the frostbite and other natural elements, but another wolf attack could come at any minute.
Photo credit: Open Road
Two men die quickly (one right after the crash and another in the first wolf attack), leaving the other six survivors to walk south in the desperate hope of finding civilization. Ottway theorizes that if they could get out of the open space and into the trees, they might have a better chance of survival. And so they start marching. And marching. And running when they see wolves. The rest of “The Grey” plays not unlike a slasher film in that one knows all six men are not going to make it to the final reel. Who’s going to be the next one to succumb to the cold or become wolf food? I wish the structure was a little more varied in that the awareness that there’s simply no movie if all six men survive drains the film a little bit of its tension not unlike how smart viewers know that it’s unlikely more than one or two people will survive a “Final Destination” sequel. And the film runs a bit long at nearly two hours. It could have been tightened significantly in the space between the crash and when the gang gets in the woods, which drags.
However, once they make it to that distant horizon, the film really builds a consistent of head of steam. Supporting characters start to become more than just victims, especially Henrick and Diaz, brought expertly to life by two performances sure to be underrated. In particular, Grillo is quite good as Diaz, a man who has clearly learned a thing or two about fighting to survive in prison and isn’t quite sure he’s ready to be in a group in which he’s not the alpha dog. Nearly unrecognizable due to facial hair, weight loss, and the brutal conditions, the character actor does stellar supporting work. And Neeson rarely hits a false note. A scene in which he screams at a God he doesn’t believe in falls a bit flat, but that’s due to Carnahan’s weaknesses as a writer. He carries emotional beats a bit too long, not realizing that they would be more effective in smaller doses. For example, we see Ottway flash back to his wife roughly seven times. Three would have had a stronger impact.
Photo credit: Open Road
The real star of “The Grey” is Mother Nature. When I think of the film, I think of swirling snow caught up in a wind that screams more than it blows. I think of the crunch of snow under their feet. The howl of wolves in the distance. The running water of the river. The sound design in “The Grey” is better than any of this year’s Oscar nominees. It’s that good.
Ultimately, I wish I liked “The Grey” just a little bit more. Carnahan is a better director than a writer and I wish some of the dialogue was a little less clichéd and that he had tightened up his screenplay. He could have had a true masterpiece and there are elements of that film that remain. However, I can’t imagine anyone not giving “The Grey” a pass based on the old theory that a movie should be judged based on what it intends to do – this one gave me the chills.
(Note: There’s a post-credits tag that you may want to stay and see. It doesn’t drastically alter the ending but does provide a bit more clarity.)