Tuesday 6 March 2012

Grim up north

Liam Neeson is a force of nature. His transformation from historical dramas and kindly-mentor roles to action stardom is the most stunningly successful Hollywood rebranding of recent years. It's not just Neeson's 6'4'' frame and steely blue eyes that help the makeover click. Rough around the edges in middle age, the Irishman is not your average slick action star: he portrays men who have lost someone. That made the otherwise simple Taken, and it goes a long way to explain the success of The Grey.

John Ottway (Neeson) is a hunter tasked with keeping wolves away from an oil drilling site in the Alaskan wilderness. When the operation winds up, the men (mostly) look forward to returning to civilisation, but their plane crashes in the middle of nowhere leaving most dead, with just half a dozen survivors. When grey wolves attack, they decide to make a run for the treeline. The rest of the film is essentially a long chase in which the men are picked off one by one, fighting back with very limited success.

Remember how in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, Adama pretends he knows the way to the Promised Land to give the remnant of humanity hope in a hopeless situation? The Grey doesn't even have that. Ottway - whom we first meet about to blow his head off - doesn't know where they are; he's perfectly aware the group is unlikely to survive, and doesn't pretend otherwise. He makes mistakes that get men killed. There is no destination, no safety for the survivors: there's only running and fighting for as long as they possibly can, not going gentle into that good night.

The advertising would have you believe The Grey is mostly Liam Neeson punching wolves, but not so: it's a philosophical film, all about meaning and fate or the lack thereof. As Diaz (Frank Grillo) points out, the fact that several men survived the plane crash only to be killed by wolves does not bode well for any traditional notion of destiny, while a late-film scene in which Ottway screams defiance mixed with pleading at an empty sky suggests that the filmmakers don't believe in an interventionist God. Even so it's more existentialist than nihilistic as the men find new meanings in their interactions and in the fight itself.

The wolves are created using a mixture of real animals (for close-ups), animatronics and CGI. The latter two look rather poor, in all honesty, so we should be grateful the wolves are rarely shown in detail. Their behaviour is in any case more archetypical than realistic, a physical and philosophical foil to the humans rather than 'real' animals. It's a well-acted, well-shot film: nothing in the career of Joe Carnahan would have led you to suspect he had such a taut thriller in him, but there you have it. Mean, lean and ferocious, The Grey may be more depressing than entertaining, but it makes for a good time at the cinema.

1 comment:

  1. Those are some vindictive wolves! Great write up, and you nailed it when you called it existencialist. Best movie of the year in my opinion yet I fail to understand how such an uneven director filmed something so darn good.