Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Summer of Films: The Grey (2011)

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from The Grey. Would this be a pointless action film? Would it be a weepy “buddy” film? I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know was that this one would be a tricky film to get right. So imagine my surprise to find a very enjoyable film. I can’t call the film “great” because there just isn’t enough to it, but it certainly was a top notch film that will hold your interest and keep you waiting to see what happens next.


Liam Neeson works as a hunter for an oil company of some sort. He works up near the arctic circle, and his job is to shoot wolves before they attack the company’s workers. His tour of duty has come to an end, however, and it’s time for him to fly home. Hence, he and about a hundred others board a plane for the civilized world.
It crashes.

Waking up in the freezing wilderness, Neeson realizes very quickly that they will never be found. Thus, he tells the other survivors that they need to walk their way out of the wilderness. They don’t really agree... not until one of them gets eaten by wolves. See, it turns out that they have landed in the hunting grounds of a particularly vicious pack of wolves, run by a massive gray alpha wolf, and these wolves have a taste for human.

The rest of the story is simple: as Neeson and the rest make their way through the wilderness, the wolves hunt them and pick off the stragglers.
Why This Film Works

Films like this are difficult because they don’t give the director much to work with. On the one hand, you have “facing the elements,” fighting exhaustion, and fighting off the foe who can attack at will. That may sound like more than enough, but it’s not. The reason is that all of this has been done so often that it’s frankly rather dull. How many ways can you show wanting to fall asleep or freezing in the snow or doing the same things we know they must do to survive? The attacks are obviously more interesting, but they are necessarily rare or the film becomes a bit of a joke. So how do you fill in the rest of the film in a way which keeps the audience’s attention?
That’s where the other hand comes in. On that other hand, you have some personal drama that can be used to fill the time. This can include a dispute or tension or conflict between the survivors as they try to make their way to safety. The danger here, however, is that the drama will feel fake. Sure, some people don’t like taking orders or they may not trust someone else, but the further you go with this, the less believable it becomes because it starts to seem like the characters care more about fighting than they do the danger they face. Indeed, this is one of those moments where no matter what your differences are, you still stick together until it’s over.
The alternative is some sort of internal monologue where the main character does his best to keep himself motivated as his body slowly begins to fail. The danger here is that the audience may not like the main character enough to care about his plight. Moreover, directors often fall prey to the idea of trying to tell a completely different movie through the flashbacks, which hurts the pacing of the main film.

Director Joe Carnahan gets around these issues by embracing them all, but only in tiny amounts. Essentially, we are shown enough conflict to know that the men are scared, but not enough to see them as stupid. We are shown enough flashbacks to know what the men have to live for, but not enough to weigh us down or slow the story. We see Neeson’s story in flashback too, but it isn’t much longer than the others, though it has a strong punch. And we get an inner monologue from Neeson which is credible, intense, and gives us genuine insight into his character.
What really makes all of this work, however, is Neeson. Like so many other characters in this type of situation, Neeson has a tragic past. I won’t tell you what it is, but it builds expertly and when you find out the kicker, it may bring a tear to your eye. That gives you a strong reason to feel for him. But even without that, Neeson does several things that strike you throughout – things that are normally missing in films like this. For example, after the plane crash, when most characters are proving their macho cred so they can lead, Neeson takes charge because his personality is so strong and then he stops to console a dying man. And the way he does it is unique. He tells the man honestly that he will die, and then he calms him to the prospect. This is a powerful moment that sets Neeson apart from anything you've seen before and it turns him into the man you want with you in the event of a disaster. You also learn that he was suicidal the night before and his reason was philosophically inspired: “I’ve stopped doing this world any good.” He also has a fascinating moment where he calls out God: “Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. ... I’m calling on you.” Throughout, his character surprises with clever moments like this.

The one downside... or maybe not... is the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it’s not a traditional ending and some people won’t like it at all. I personally wanted more at first, but felt satisfied as I thought about the meaning of it all.

All told, this is a film where you all know the plot, you all know what will happen, and you can guess most of the characters. Nevertheless, the film feels fresh and it will pull you in and hold your interest. I definitely recommend this one.


USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review, Andrew!
I liked this film as well, and Neeson's performance is the main reason.
although the directing was good it still needed Neeson at the top of his game.

It wasn't quite as good as The Edge, at least in rewatchability but well worth watching nonetheless.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! I agree. Neeson makes this film. The writing is surprisingly solid and the direction is quite good, but Neeson's personality makes this film work. He's just at the top of his game and the perfect choice of some who straddles the line between everyman and superman. He is probably the most compelling actor of our age on screen.

djskit said...

"to know what the men have to live for" OR the lack there of, which I thought was a very powerful moment.

I also liked the analogy of the "alpha males" competing for dominance - both in the wolf pack and the group of men. So, in that light, I felt the ending was inevitable and perfectly satisfying.

Tennessee Jed said...

thanks for this review, Andrew. I almost ssaw this because of Neeson, but was concerned it might be dull .... kind of a nice idea, but too hard to bring off. Having read how this worked for you, I feel like I could invest the time to watch it, and come away with enough to make me feel like I hadn't wasted my time. Neeson is one of my favorite actors, particularly later in his career, although i was afraid he was going to be over-exposed and go for a cash grab in the geezer as action hero genre.

Rustbelt said...

Haven't seen this one, but with Neeson in the lead, it might be worth taking a look. I read somewhere that Neeson has really taken over from Gene Hackman as Hollywood's go-to 'Mr. Reliable'- not the biggest of movie stars, but a guy who brings plenty of skill and integrity that makes just about anything he's in watchable.

Also, Andrew, the setting and description of this film reminds me a lot of 'John Carpenter's The Thing.' From your viewing, did you see any similarities or suppose the '82 film might have been an influence?

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Agreed. The moment you find out what isn't there to live for anymore is very powerful. They do a great job building to it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think you'll enjoy it. It never feels like a cash grab to me. To the contrary, it's very engaging and strongly written. Nor is he a geezer really. He comes across as entirely believable as the guy he is playing and as the guy who should be leading this group.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I didn't see any real comparison to The Thing. The look and feel is entirely different, as is the focus of the story. This is much more of an action drama, whereas The Thing was a sci-fi horror.

Kit said...

So its worth a look?

Tennessee Jed said...

I didn't mean that was necessarily the case with Grey. Rather an oblique reference to the "Taken" Franchise which has gone on two films to long. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Definitely... if you like this kind of movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I enjoyed Taken, but not the sequel.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know anything about the movie, but watched it for Liam Neeson, I enjoyed it a lot and I'm not sure how many other actors could have pulled it off.

I also was unsure about the ending, thinking about it, it isn't the usual ending we get so I appreciate that they took the chance to stand out and not give us what we expected. Overall it was a thoughtful well made movie, which I could watch again.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I honestly wasn't expecting much. It seemed like a very limited concept that had been thoroughly played out. But the writing was much better than I expected, Neeson really pulled it off, and the ending does make it stand out even more. In fact, I can't think of a more appropriate ending.

Unknown said...

Thanks for another really insightful review, Andrew. Regarding Neeson and "He is probably the most compelling actor of our age on screen", compelling is exactly the right word. Watching Neeson makes even pulp action like the Taken series compelling viewing. Even his lego avatar is awesome.

Kit said...

Agree about Neeson. Few actors can hold a candle to him in the presence factor.

AndrewPrice said...

John, You're welcome. :)

Neeson is compelling. There is just something about him that makes you want to watch. And he puts that to good use here and most of his other recent films.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Agreed. He stands apart right now from most of Hollywood.

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