"Honestly, I'd say that's the best way to enter the film, to not have a
of preconceptions about it. And I hate that, too, when I go to see
a movie after hearing all of these fantastic things, because inevitably
you're going to be let down. So it's nice if you have a clean slate."
Director, Joe Carnahan
I must concur with the above, so much so that I went into the cinema with expectations around my ankles and came out tremendously impressed with a bold and assured work and one, it could be argued, that has some real depth to it. If you want to approach this movie with the same low expectations and lack of information as I did, then stop reading now and go and treat yourself. If you want a little more gentle but insistent pushing, then read on.
All I knew about this movie was that Liam Neeson was in it and that the ad campaign was based around his face (no one does despair quite like Neeson and that's not in reference to the loss of his real wife, Nastasha Richardson, in a skiing accident in 2009). I'd seen the trailer and was moderately motivated but the real hook that sat me in front of The Grey was the dreadful selection of other choices at the multiplex. I'd already been woefully disappointed in the over-egged nonsense that was War Horse (someone please ask John Williams to show some restraint, any would be good) and as a writer for this particular site, I wasn't exactly salivating to see The Grantham Gorgon (or whatever it's called) despite my high regard for Meryl Streep. So I sat there in front of Alaska's icy wastes and within ten minutes, my son had leaned over and said "This is actually really good..." and I could not disagree. I was bolted to my seat for the running time never once disengaged with any of the characters or action offered up. That may not seem like a startling statement but these days, it really is.
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) shoots wolves for a living, wolves that threaten oil workers in Alaska. Let's not worry too much about real wolves and their almost non-existent threat to human beings. After losing a lover (we assume), he nurtures a suicidal depression and clings on to a last letter he's written in the hope it will bring him some closure. A distant howl stays his trigger finger and the next day he boards a plane after the completion of a job. In short, the plane crashes and the survivors have to trek through the icy wilderness trying to keep away from a wolf pack that is not hugely happy to have guests so near its den. I'd like to underline and restate the fact that wolves will usually stay away from humans – in the movie (as in most animal-as-monster movies) the animals represent an obstacle to overcome, another facet of 'the wild' to stand up against rather than any stab at natural world realism. The wolves are realistic enough, terrifying in fact. It's perhaps not exactly Steven Spielberg's fault or responsibility but Jaws must shoulder some blame for the near extinction of some shark species. It'd be a shame if people got that trigger-happy over wolves. That The Grey's menace works as a metaphorical and literal monster is a testament to what I consider the best aspect of the movie and an extremely welcome one in American mainstream cinema.
The Grey respects death. The Grey acknowledges death and allows it time, weight and import. I was shocked by how well this was brought to the screen and the commitment of the actors who sold each death with a grim reality so sorely lacking from the mainstream. After the crash, Neeson comforts a dying man by telling him that he is on his way out and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent his passing. Neeson asks the stricken man to think of a loved one that could lead him away. I'd seen the character in a mid shot before the crash for all of thirty seconds and in his last minutes I'm actually tremendously moved by his demise. This was extraordinary to me. Neeson's power is harnessed by use of the filmmaker's greatest weapon, the close up and director Joe Carnahan does not skimp. In fact the climax is almost completely covered in one extraordinary close up (it is the poster image after all). As each death follows while the men attempt to find shelter or a path out of the wilderness (this is hardly a spoiler), each fatal punctuation is given requisite weight whether it's the terror of finding the remains of the last guy on watch or a dying man's last soft and loving memory of a daughter to be savagely replaced by the reality of his impending doom by being devoured. One death in particular is directed and cut so beautifully (let's not forget acted so well too) that for a tiny second I felt what it must have been like to be temporarily isolated but isolated enough to be targeted by wild animals. Imagine those last few seconds of your life when you know death is rounding on you. The Grey's greatest strength is that it makes you feel these deaths and that can only be a good thing for audiences fed on the insidious pap that promotes an eight storey fall as something the hero can just roll away from and not be made into vegetable paté.
I could single out Liam Neeson (it's his movie after all) because he's terrific in the film never once letting you think he's the cut-price Jason Bourne of the astoundingly violent Taken series. He's a powerful man but an intensely sympathetic and vulnerable physical presence and let's not forget, in his own words, he's also "terrified..." The other cast support him superbly and if I had to single anyone out it would be the reluctant follower, Diaz (Frank Grillo) whose macho posturing leads to one of the best scenes of the film as well as its best scare on a par in terms of shock with Samuel L. Jackson's cartoon demise in Deep Blue Sea. But there is nothing in The Grey that strikes you as false or unnatural. This is confident filmmaking in real locations with, one assumes, real hardships. I'm thinking that Neeson wouldn't have committed if all the snow had been put in after the fact. I think Neeson's experience with green screen on The Phantom Menarse put him off CG for life. Speaking of the plague of cinematic reality, let me just say that the CG work on the wolves is extremely good. I wasn't taken out of the film once by a stray thought akin to "Oh, that fur's rendered up pretty well..."
Two more aspects of the movie need to be highlighted. Number one, sound. The sound design and mix are bloody marvellous. More than anything else, the sound decides how you're going to feel, the startling snap of an attack, a cue to make you jump out of your skin while watching someone having theirs torn off. It's not just that delicious anticipation, your two fingers slowly pressing into your ears, that twig crack telling you something is behind you. The plane crash is a sound effects masterpiece with silence being used to punctuate the horror. I applaud the often unsung and will mention their names simply because it's about time talented technicians get some recognition. Bravo to sound designer Bob Kellough and mixer Michael T. Williamson. Secondly, there's the oft-used 'flashback'. This is incredibly effective in The Grey. A woman (wife or lover, it's never revealed) lies with Neeson and whenever he is ripped from his stylised reverie, he is physically yanked from her side and it's very successful in the way a straight cut would not be. In fact it's a new form of editing where the transition to the next scene or shot is helped by a few frames of motion from the preceding shot. It works so well, the editors employ it about three times and it never gets stale.
Let's not forget another aspect of this remarkable film that is noteworthy. If you chose to do so, the film could be taken as a treatise on life and death, an existential howl of worth. How far do you go to hold on to life? It's that question the movie leaves you with (as well as a very obscure post-end credits 'reveal'). The ending serves to highlight a trend in modern film marketing. I'll finish on a slight spoiler which will not ruin your enjoyment of the film one bit but I feel I have to say something in defence of the film against its own bloody trailer. If you do chose to watch it, keep your eyes open ten seconds before the end. The final three shots are of a snarling wolf's head, Neeson's boots running in the snow and his upper torso sprinting with sharpened weapons in his hands... mano a canis lupus... The big scrap!
Well, these shots are not in the movie and the obvious promise of a Neeson/Alpha dog fight does not exactly bear fruit. This is because it's not what the film is about and damn the trailer for leading certain people in to their seats only to be naturally disappointed. If after reading this review, you feel yourself too well informed, then still please, treat yourself to a grown up film that makes you care in spades. I was shocked by how good The Grey is and urge you to seek it out on a big screen with wonderful sound before it takes up residence in that 'grey' area between cinema screen and disc.
Post Script on The Rather Odd Title
Until well into the second paragraph of this review written on the day after my cinema visit, I had no idea what the title referred to except, possibly, some vague weather allusion. It had to be one of the worst titles for a movie that I've ever known. It does nothing to evoke its excitement, fear, anticipation or a desire to see it. As the poster is just Neeson looking intense, the only 'grey' on offer is his sweater – a whole movie on a woollen garment, the mind boggles. It was only after some basic research that I twigged – the 'grey' of course refers to the species of wolf (duh) but it certainly wasn't clear to me and that's a full day after I saw it. Yes, they could have called it Claws or Stranded or Between Ice and Fire or (insert your idea here)... Anything but The Grey! It's based on a short story called 'Ghost Walker' – even that's miles better than The Grey. I can only think that with fourteen producers (count them, fourteen!) maybe that was the compromise title that everyone disliked the least... Given that title as a handicap, it's still a tremendous thriller with some depth, incredibly convincing performances and action directed and cut with real flair and respect for the audience and (if it's not too pretentious) respect for life and death.