Staring Into the Abyss
Movie Review: "THE GREY"
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012
Updated: Friday, January 27, 2012 17:01
Nature vs. Neeson is the central theme of this weekend's best new release, "THE GREY", and it provides for a far more thoughtful film than you ever would have imagined. Joe Carnahan directs with an influence more derived from Werner Herzog than from other successful Neeson actioners like "UNKNOWN" or "TAKEN", and that comparison to the German filmmaker is no stretch. The kind of violent surrealism and survivalist narrative we've come to expect from Herzog works perfectly in this Hollywood thriller (which even name-drops his "GRIZZLY MAN" in the first few minutes, as if to cement the connection.)
Overflowing with masculine energy, packed with philosophy and fatalism, and exploding with daddy issues, "THE GREY" indulges all your favorite ‘guy movie' fetishes while simultaneously criticizing the old-world male posturing of its characters. Among the tradition of ‘grumpy old man' filmmakers, it earns its place alongside works by Huston and Peckinpah.
The plot is simplicity at its finest, allowing "GREY" to focus more on expressionist visuals and abstract philosophy than on creating tension through the plot alone. Carnahan (in a bravura crash scene that had my heart pounding) strands a handful of men in the Alaskan wilderness, with no eye-line out of the snowstorm and a pack of hungry wolves circling their every movement. From that setup, it seems this may be nothing more than a standard slasher film (with the wolves, standing in for some Freudian killer, picking off our heroes one-by-one.)
But Carnahan treats his plot with the utmost sincerity, depicting numerous extended conversations about God and the afterlife (which is pretty much the last taboo of American commercial cinema, so it gets points just for that) and depicting the desolation with a reliance on perfectly composed long shots that strand our characters as mere dots in an unrelenting haze of white. And he handles the wolves (a mix of CGI and animatronics) perfectly, keeping them in sight without ever sacrificing their mysterious nature by shooting them in close-up (one particular shot, of their eyes lighting up one-by-one in the dark, will stay with me for years.) Their trek into the snow becomes a trek into madness; this is "AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD" gone arctic.
And of course, this is all anchored by a fucking heartbreaking performance by Liam Neeson as Ottway, a lead oil driller. I don't know if this script was written for him, but the parallels to his real life (his wife, Natasha Richardson, was tragically killed in a skiing accident just a few years ago) are impossible to ignore. We see him violent and depressed after the loss of his wife, his character buries himself in work while constantly having to face off with suicidal urges.
Look, you know this man can play tough and philosophical with the best of them; I don't need to sell you on his acting with adjectives. But this film is brilliant in using what we know about Liam to get to emotional planes Hollywood action films rarely – if ever – achieve. Carnahan knows he doesn't have to flesh out the late wife character (seen exclusively in dreams and hallucinations, much like the flashes of Ottway's late father,) because leaving her as a blank slate forces the audience to read her in terms of Liam's real life, and the tragedy that befell his real family. And this only makes his angry, violent outbursts towards the sky all the more harrowing. This goes beyond personal: it becomes legitimately uncomfortable watching his breakdown; it's that raw, that honest.
Because at the end of the day, more than anything else, this is a film about the silence of God. The wolves are as much a symbol of Life's irrationalities as they are ruthless killing machines. I honestly make the comparison to Herzog with no irony or exaggeration – Carnahan and Neeson elevate the rote survivalist plot to a study of man's spiritual place in the universe (the fact that Neeson's final verbal showdown with the Almighty is spurred on by the first truly "meaningless" death in the film only makes the personal angles more wrenching.) And while it occasionally teeters on the edge of schmaltz; the brutality of the conflicts and the mournful pain that lingers over Ottway never allow the film to cross over into camp.
If all you want to see is scene after scene of Liam Neeson kicking ass, you'd be better off looking elsewhere – this is closer to "DELIVERANCE" than to "TAKEN 2". "THE GREY" is a startling tale of masculine confidence snuffed out by the indifference of nature, simultaneously poignant and painfully visceral. This is a man's movie.