Directed by Joe Carnahan
Starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermont Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, and Joe Anderson
Release Date: January 27, 2012
Unemotional deaths and the exaggerated ways in which death is executed are prodigious in the early months of the new year. Most films are determined to sink into an atmosphere that doesn’t demand any coherence or meaning to death. Audiences are forcibly taught to observe an uncountable number of deaths, each one determined to be more outrageous, blood-soaked, and meaningless as the next. Not only these early months but also throughout the entire year death is hardly handled appropriately. So when a director arrives with a film that is assuredly acquainted with dealing with death reverently, almost piously, it deserves our utmost attention.
Director Joe Carnahan has crafted a relentless and brutal film that is fully aware of when to slow it down and meditate and dwell on a particular issue, be it personal, existential, or death related. A group of oil company workers (mostly consisting of ragged and existentially confused men) stranded in an unknown location in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash and incessantly hunted by wolves isn’t the gore fest one would expect. The film acknowledges that pointless violence can be dispensable and intimacy with men facing imminent death can be successful. Instead of simply dissolving his talents in another A-Team or Smoking Aces (films that were satisfied with colossal ugliness), Carnahan shows that demise doesn’t have to be ugly and rambunctious, but that it can resemble poetry, something along the lines of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and be the most important moment of an individual’s existence.
In The Grey, which is written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, there seems to be amongst the film’s characters a preoccupation with death. Each character is seemingly unaffected by any pain or sorrow. Maybe they’re too numb to feel anything because of all the booze and brawls they happen to drown themselves in. They drink the freezing nights away and as sport engage in reckless behavior that always leads to drunken fistfights. But as the film expands into territories of departure for a January release, The Grey, along with its characters, shows that mankind is mortified and relieved by the discovery that death hurts and soothes simultaneously.
Liam Neeson, though, still retains his inimitable brazenness. His intimidating, towering demeanor has never been more thoroughly utilized as it is in this film. The intrepidness he possesses is as strong and powerful as ever as he plays Ottway, a sniper for the oil company who picks off fast-approaching wolves that want to devour the oil workers. Ottway has vulnerabilities, emotional and existential, something a Neeson character (Taken, Unknown) isn’t used to dealing with.
Knowing Neeson, we know that his character will take charge and lead the band of survivors, which he does. When around a campfire used to keep warm, Ottway, along with five survivors from the plane crash (Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermont Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, and Joe Anderson), admits that he is terrified, even though he is the so-called expert of survival amongst the survivors, while another, Grillo’s character, firmly declares that fear doesn’t exist for him. Concealing fear is futile when isolated in the barren and frigid wild and hunted by voracious wolves. This is Carnahan astutely depicting humanity and the many ways we express ourselves when our courage is put to the test and our existence is threatened.
The film capitalizes on by-the-fireside moments of intimacy, where brutal honesty about the characters’ personal lives emerges. All characters (rendered wonderfully by more than capable actors) are fraught with existential, emotional, and spiritual anguish. To hear these men, who are threatened by death, engage in serious conversation about such topics gives the film a sense of importance. Of course a movie like The Grey is going to depict man vs. nature, the primitive disposition man resorts back to when pushed to the limit, but what we don’t expect a film like The Grey to present is a somber, meditative look at death being something sacred. And that is exactly what the film presents.
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****