“The Grey”, directed by Joe Carnahan, is a thriller that relies on its strong sense of atmosphere and feelings about grief and the process of death. Based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, and written by Mr. Jeffers and Mr. Carnahan, “The Grey”, which opened today at area theaters in San Francisco, is a gripping, absorbing tale of a crew of oil riggers stranded in the snowy Alaskan wild when their plane crashes in the mountains. At once a test of wills and survival instincts, the men, led by John Ottway (Liam Neeson) — who narrates portions of the film — have to contend with wolves, who are starving.
Mr. Carnahan puts his rugged men on a familiar canvas: the harsh elements, and develops a muscular vs. psychological profile of each. There are the fearful, like Ottway, who sees his wife in close-up and soft white images and heavenly linens and gently talks to her in poetic ways Byron would envy, and there are the falsely brave, like Diaz (Frank Grillo), boisterous, empty and roaring with hot air. What is most effective about “The Grey”, an otherwise average drama, is its careful look at men who feel, men who are unafraid to express their emotions and men who face death with a sense of fear but also peace. When several members of the team die, the surviving men laugh nervously and joke like hard-boiled detectives at a crime scene.
In “The Grey” it’s how men die but also how they handle how they die, that matters. Some will go peacefully, others pathetically, still others violently. Each knows his day of reckoning is coming. In some ways part of the film’s currency lies in the idea that one is most alive when one is dying (or very close to death). The moments and process of expiration as described in Mr. Carnahan’s film have a beauty and softness to them, and Ottway, fueled by memories of his wife (Anne Openshaw), is like a death tamer or Death Whisperer, comforting men with elegy and description as they head off into the wild blue yonder. It’s a sweet, heartwarming process, and you see the hardy, gritty men around Ottway softening up as they watch a colleague pass. While many films glory in making death a fetish, sexualizing it — particularly in action films — here death is given a dignity, affection and respect that is refreshing, tender and real.
Stylized with visual effects and excellent cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi, “The Grey” is disturbing, unerringly suspenseful and heart-pounding. The film has two styles: one a blissful, tranquil Elysian realm of literal and visual poetry that soothes in a sensual way; the other a brutal and abrupt wilderness full of surprises. A mediation, “The Grey” — the title is the film’s most obvious giveaway, as well as Ottway’s mantra “live and die on this day” — has a frightening, all-too-uncomfortably real plane crash that will make you think twice about flying during the winter. Staged in a terrifically kinetic manner, it is one heck of a jolt to the system, much the way the plane crash in “Alive” transpired about 20 years ago, a film based on a true story.
Full of certitude, Ottway is a thinking man fully in touch with himself, who knows the truth about his circumstances. He’s acutely aware of what has happened to him, as is the film. He often makes dire pronouncements not borne of pessimism but reality. He’s been there. Mr. Carnahan’s men have bonding sessions around the campfire. They talk about their wives, their daughters, their girlfriends, prostitutes, and they engage their emotions and address their vulnerabilities. They utter funny one-liners. Their language of tough talk and jocularity is matched by that of the wolves, disdainful of the sudden human intrusion. The wolves have a fearsome concerto of their own.
Ottway is in touch with the wild and is able to tame it, and the camera is in touch with each of the men in an intimate way, with close-ups of faces as adversity hits each. Mr. Carnahan captures a sensitivity and lyricism at all times in “The Grey”, even in its rougher moments. The film has jarring realism that stuns. I shivered inside when the Alaskan wind howled and the snow fell. I felt I was walking the frozen tundra that the group of men arduously traverse. Aside from the wolves there are no other enemies. The men are left with their thoughts, the cruel, savage winter, and each other. Some men let go in tough times, others hold on — but which is worse? The film heads to repetitive if not sanctified territory in its resolution, but when it ends we understand why it ends where it does.
In true “And Then There Were None” fashion the party of men shrinks as they seek evergreen land. We think we know how these men will die. We expect the clichés. We expect a black character to be first to go. Yet Mr. Carnahan, who specializes in capturing ferocious, adrenaline-fueled men in a visceral way (“Narc”, “Smokin’ Aces”), often eludes our expectations. Even if “The Grey” may feel like a standard January Liam Neeson film, it’s a different animal: a better, elegant one, one that kept me pinned to my seat until the very end.
A word of advice: don’t leave before the last of the end credits as I did however, for there’s something more, I’m told, that transpires in this admirable effort from Mr. Carnahan.
–At area theaters in San Francisco
With: Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Ben Bray, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Jacob Blair, Joe Anderson.
“The Grey” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language. The film’s duration is one hour and 57 minutes.
Original review here
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For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s modenook.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.