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Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: The Grey (2012)

* * * 1/2
Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson

"Bleak" is perhaps the best word to describe Joe Carnahan's man vs. nature film, The Grey. "Devastating" is another. It's the kind of film you really have to watch when the weather outside is nice, because otherwise it's just too damn depressing (in hindsight I'm very glad I didn't see it when it was in theatres in January). That it's capable of having such an effect is to its credit, given how easily it could have been a mindless thriller, or a horror movie with wolves playing the role of the killer.

The Grey begins with a film noir style voice over by its protagonist, Ottway (Liam Neeson), who describes the Alaskan camp where he's been living as a place for men unfit for society. The men in the camp are part of an oil drilling team and Ottway's job is to shoot wolves who might otherwise make their way into the camp. On his last day at the camp, Ottway decides to kill himself but can't bring himself to do it and instead boards a plane that will take him back to civilization. The plane crashes en route, leaving less than a dozen survivors, one of whom is almost immediately picked off by wolves. Fearing that a rescue crew wouldn't be able to find them because the wreckage of the plane is quickly being burried in snow, the remaining survivors begin a long hike from the crash site towards a line of trees visible on the horizon.

The trek is arduous as the survivors have to contend with both the weather and the wolves, and they're picked off one by one until it comes down to just four: Ottway, Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), who has taken on the task of collecting the wallets of the dead so that they can be returned to loved ones once they reach civilization, Talget (Dermot Mulroney), and Diaz (Frank Grillo), the obligatory contrarian who challenges Ottway's authority at first and then, after having a close brush with death, begins to see the wisdom of Ottway's words. Knowing that they're surrounded but having spotted a river which, they hope, might lead them to help, the four decide that their only option is to get to the water. To do so they have to find a way to leap across a canyon - which proves to be about as easy as it sounds. The only alternative, however, is turning around and facing off against the wolves, and so they forge ahead, trying desperately to stay alive.

The Grey proceeds forward with the same grim determination as its characters, the spectre of death hanging over it from beginning to end. The odds are stacked against the characters - the elements show no mercy and, no matter what weapons the characters get hold off or are able to fashion, the fact remains that they're greatly outnumbered by the wolves. Carnahan ultimately uses the wolves sparingly, allowing the idea of them to dominate rather than turning the film into an outright bloodbath. The most frightening moments of the film are not when the wolves attack, but when the survivors, huddled around their fire, look up into the darkness and see dozens of glowing eyes, watching and waiting.

Carnahan builds tension in a really effective way, sustaining it right up to the film's final seconds even though, on an intellectual level, you know that the story can really only end in one way (though a brief shot at the end of the credits suggests otherwise). He also manages to make you feel a degree of emotional investment in the outcome, even though the characters, save for Ottway, are only as fleshed out as absolutely necessary in order to make them more than cannon fodder. Of the actors, only Neeson really has a compelling character to play (though Grillo comes close and does an admirable job with his archetypal character) and he gives an excellent performance. Ottway is a man haunted who begins the film in deepest despair, ready to give up on life, and then fights a fierce battle to preserve it. Neeson is an actor who can do a lot with a little, who needs only a gesture to express what may take other actors pages of dialogue. His understated performance goes a long way towards the film's ultimate success, giving it a sense of gravitas that not many films of its type can manage and pushing the film beyond adequacy and close to greatness.

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