Liam Neeson stars in an early hot contender for one of our movies of the year
When an oil drilling team crash lands in Alaska on their way home, the survivors are forced to head south if they stand any chance of surviving. The inhospitable landscape holds dangers enough, until they find they also have a pack of territorial wolves on their trail.
Director Joe Carnahan made everyone sit up and take notice with his blistering theatrical debut Narc in 2002. Coaxed into screens with help from Tom Cruise (who was one of the 20 plus producers on the film), it was an improbably gritty tale of a broken narcotics officer played by Jason Patric who comes up against more than he bargained for during the investigation into the death of a fellow policeman.
Carnahan seemed destined for the Hollywood big time, rustling up a high impact short for BMW in 2002, before moving into pre-production on Mission: Impossible III with supposed buddy Tom Cruise but he soon left over creative differences. The director eventually returned to theatres with 2006’s Smokin’ Aces – a ridiculously over the top action film with plenty of bullets and mayhem but few signs of the mature filmmaker who brought us Narc, apart from a contemplative closing scene. And while we were more fond of The A-Team than most, it seemed like the subtleties of the director had become lost in blockbuster filmmaking.
Well Carnahan fans, fear not. With The Grey, he’s back and better than ever.
There are elements of The Grey that are down to luck – chiefly the appearance of Liam Neeson in the lead role. The part was due to go to the ever popular Bradley Cooper, before the switch to an older lead. Cooper’s a capable enough performer in a comedy ensemble but falters when it comes to heavy drama. Neeson’s just built for this role, with touches of personal history, a weathered face and the acting chops to pull out some moments that go for the dramatic jugular.
Chance played its part, but the rest of the film succeeds thanks to a masterfully wrought script from Carnahan, which is based on a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who also contributed to the adaptation. The film pits lead character Ottway (Neeson) against the trials of the weather and the landscape and the horrors of a pack of ravenous wolves but also against himself. He has taken a job at the end of the earth, surrounded by the dregs of humanity, and feels like this is just the kind of hell he deserves. Ottway accepts his new situation with resignation and almost recognition. The wolves are a real adversary but also, fundamentally, represents the personal demons the character has been trying, and failing, to face.
Carnahan takes what could have been a staid action B movie with stock macho characters and forces the audience to see them as people. Sometimes bad people yes but human beings nonetheless who have a right to live one more day, even if its just to spend that time drunk or wallowing in whatever defective life choices they have made. He makes you feel each death in the film, feel the loss of another valued life.
An early moment sees Neeson’s Ottway comforting a mortally injured man after the plane crash. It’s a moment of total compassion, giving the dying man a glimpse of better times as his gore streaked hands search frantically for some contact. And he finds it, in the grip of another survivor. It’s a simply stunning moment, something unexpected and powerful and makes the mention of an Oscar nomination for Neeson far from laughable.
The Grey is shot through with touches of startling subjectivity, lead by Ottway’s frequent voice over. It introduces us to his world and makes it clear that we’re experiencing everything from his perspective. This also gives Carnahan the chance to toy with some arresting imagery, like Ottway’s wife lying next to him on a bed of snow, a recurring visual motif that keeps the character going, alongside a letter he has written to her. The character keeps it as a talisman, as a chance for reconciliation, of a life beyond this current circumstance and it serves to make us all the more hopeful of his survival.
Neeson is on top of his game here, unhindered by even a whisper of an accent, he digs deep to bring out the complexities of a man who has given up on trying to live a good life. His physicality is a boon as well and his worn and functional hands a constant feature – weapons and tools of survival. He may carry most of the dramatic weight of the film, but his supporting actors are uniformly excellent. While the dialogue sometimes falls into repetitive macho territory, there’s depth to every major character, with Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts doing solid work. Most memorable is Frank Grillo who had a small role in last year’s Warrior. Here as Diaz, he takes what could have been a stereotypical semi villain and crafts a tremendous arc for the character.
Carnahan is intent on providing more than a mere action movie with The Grey but doesn’t completely shirk those responsibilities. Everything from the bone-jarring crash to the finale is handled with a gritty attention to detail and some fast but never confusing editing by trio Roger Barton, Jason Hellmann and Joseph Jett Sally. Set pieces occur infrequently and lack the bravura of blockbuster films but it’s that intimacy which makes it all the more engaging, even terrifying.
Strangely enough, it’s with the wolves themselves that The Grey almost falters. Brought to life with a mixture of animatronics and CG, they often looks less than convincing and are used far too often throughout. A handful of CG sequences are effective, and there’s menace in the physicality of an on set model but these enemies are at their most terrifying when they’re unseen – like a nocturnal cavalcade of howls, etched only in half seen plumes of lupine breath.
But it’s a minor issue in a film which does so many things right. The Grey is possessed of a bleak beauty, captured perfectly by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagand projects the chill of the Alaskan wastes right into the theatre. It is bold and brash and macho, while also presenting moments of powerful emotional weight and even addressing themes of spirituality and the constant closeness of death. And the ending, when it comes, is mere inevitability, coming to a head in a burst of finely wrought lyricism and an indefatigable drive to live just one more day.