Sunday, January 29, 2012

"The Grey" (2012)

Starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney
Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian McKenzie Jeffers
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 117 Minutes

This review will discuss the ending of this film.  If you want to avoid spoilers, ignore the paragraphs in italics.

Liam Neeson has had something of an unlikely resurgence in his career.  Pushing 60, the man seems to have carved a new niche for himself as a total badass in action thrillers like "Taken" and "The A-Team."  Now, he teams up again with director Joe Carnahan for a tale of a broken man marooned in the Alaskan wilds, hunted by wolves.

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) works security for an oil company at the end of the world.  He protects oil drillers from the wolves that stalk the fields.  He deeply misses his wife, and has no friends among his coworkers.  One night, he boards a plan headed for Anchorage along with a number of other workers.  Partway through the trip, the plan crashes, and Ottway finds himself one of only a half dozen survivors, including Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Diaz (Frank Grillo), Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Burke (Nonso Anozie), and Hernandez (Ben Bray).  With little food, and no chance of being found, the group hunkers down for the night.

But they soon discover they're not alone: a pack of wolves circles their camp, and Ottway realizes that they are being hunted.  If they can make it to the tree line, he thinks, perhaps the wolves will back off.  But even as the men make it to what they hope is safety, they realize the wolves are not going to let them go so easily, and their own problems begin to fray their unity.

What hath trailers wrought?  There is often a battle raging between expectation and delivery when it comes to watching a film.  Check out the trailer for "The Grey" above, and then think about how it presents certain concepts that make you want to go see this film.  The final bit of the trailer shows Liam Neeson strapping broken bottles to hist knuckles to take on a raging wolf.

Now, how upset are you going to be when I tell you that the final bit of the trailer is actually the final bit of the film itself?  The problem is that the trailer sells you on a promise of more, but when you finally get to the film... there is no more.  That's it.  The promised final battle between Ottway and the Alpha wolf takes place entirely off-screen.  

I'm struggling with this because it's not as though I can really fault the film itself for it.  But I'm having trouble separating my expectations from the trailer and looking at the film objectively.  The film, by itself, really works.  But having watched that trailer, I didn't get out of it what that trailer seems to promise.  Even the film's poster image is taken directly from the last seconds of the film.  I've often complained about trailers giving away too much of a film ('Avatar' comes to mind) but this one seems to imply the opposite - that it's not giving away too much, when in fact it absolutely is.

But on its own, "The Grey" is a pretty great thriller/drama.  Things start out quite well, as the plane crash that strands Ottway and the others is actually one of the most horrifying sequences I've seen in a film in a long while.  I've seen plenty of plane crashes, and they all seem designed to elicit the same reaction: "Oh, cool!"  This one, on the other hand, was frightening in its design and execution.  Aside from a brief look outside the window, we never see the outside of the plane.  And on the inside, things are pretty horrific.

The wolves are rarely seen in any great detail.  They're often obscured by darkness or blinding snow, which makes them all the more frightening as well.  There are a couple of really great moments where all we can see of them is their breath.  Joe Carnahan has crafted a film steeped in tragic, horrifying atmosphere.  The sense of inevitability, that these men are no more in charge of their own fates than an inanimate object, gives the entire proceeding a sense of real dread.  Drained of color in the frozen wilderness, and seemingly drained of hope, "The Grey" is a harsh film to look at, but also quite beautiful in places despite this.

The script is full of surprising moments, and each character's death hits like a punch to the gut.  Make no bones about it, this is not an over-the-top action pic like "Taken."  (Indeed, the humorous Internet meme renaming the film "Wolf Puncher" now seems silly).  Instead, "The Grey" is a gripping survival drama.  It allows its characters to ask questions about why they exist in their current situation, and it also allows them to grow and change, and gives us enough glimpses into their nature to allow us to care about them.  A number of recurring motifs paint a more fascinating and detailed picture than one would expect from this film.  Characters' wallets become important, and more than once we see death represented as a characters' loved ones, drawing a surprising amount of warm emotion into the cold environment.

On the whole, "The Grey" works.  From start to finish, it's gripping and well-made.  But at the same time, my one big problem with it (described in italics above) feels rather insurmountable.  I suspect I'm going to have to watch it again when it hits blu-ray in order to separate my expectations from what I got, and truly give the film its due.