Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"The Grey"

Directed by Joe Carnahan, written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, and Frank Grillo - Rated R

"I'm going to start beating the s*** out of you in the next five seconds.  And you're going to swallow a lot of your own blood, over a billfold."  Gee, Sorry, Mr. Neeson, I'll put it back...

The emergence of Liam Neeson as an action star lately has never made much sense to me.  How do his characters of Briar (Next of Kin), Darkman (Darkman, duh), Priest Vallon (Gangs of New York),  and Qui-Gon Jinn (The Phantom Menace) not qualify as action roles?  Not to mention multiple other films in which he shows his tough side, like Seraphim Falls and Kingdom of Heaven.  For whatever reason, Taken is the only example people use when they want to proclaim Neeson’s action side.  Well, forget Taken (it’s extremely overrated anyway), because Liam Neeson has been an intimidating man onscreen for quite some time.  Also, forget the previews for The Grey, because this is not Taken with wolves.  “The Grey” is a surprisingly existential film in which Neeson gets to show his acting chops and his tough side.
The Grey may appear to be a simple story of survival against the elements…and wolves, but it is much, much more.  While the previews promise plenty of action featuring Neeson squaring off with wolves, it ends up delivering on a deeper level.  This is a story about survival, faith, life, and death.  The film begins with a suicidal Neeson.  He’s struggling with memories of his wife (it is not clear what has happened to her) and he has taken his misery to Alaska.  Neeson bides his time protecting pipeline workers from wolves, but this is not enough of a distraction.  Yet he can’t bring himself to end his life.  He is stopped, seemingly by fate, and that is how he ends up on a doomed flight back to civilization.  When that flight goes down in the Alaskan wilderness, The Grey truly begins.
The movie is quite simple in that it is all about Neeson and a handful of gruff survivors and their quest to survive.  A survival movie can get bogged down in misery if the filmmakers are not careful and while The Grey can certainly be described as depressing, it can also be described as realistic.  The film’s realism isn’t in the tense set pieces or wolf encounters (both feature some moments that strain believability), but rather in the characters themselves and their reaction to the situation they are in.  The writers of the film, director Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (adapting his own short story), anticipate every question the viewer might have in a very natural way.  Once Neeson seems to be barking all the orders, others speak up, pointing out that no leader had been selected.  Some survivors get strong and noble, wanting to deal with the dead, while others raid the drink cart and take a more pessimistic approach.  This is all to be expected, but the characters all feel real and never come off as one-note, even if they fit into certain types. 

It helps that the characters are inhabited by some talented supporting actors.  Dallas Roberts does a fine job as the morally sound Hendrick, even if he does come off as a bit preachy at times.  Ben Bray provides some emotional punch as Hernandez.  And Frank Grillo is the surprise of the film as Diaz, the pessimistic loner of the group.  But this is still Neeson’s film and he carries it well.  Neeson has always been an imposing figure and when you see him threaten another survivor, you know the other guy is going to back down.  He can hold a movie through sheer physical presence, but he anchors it with his emotional gravitas.  When Neeson is struggling with past memories or cursing God, you believe he is feeling true anguish.  It makes the battle for survival all the more compelling. 
Director Joe Carnahan has a hand in making The Grey a success, as well.  The look of the film is perfectly stark and at times beautiful.  The handheld style (akin to The Wrestler) gives the viewer the feeling that we are on the journey with Neeson.  Carnahan crafts a number of memorable sequences in the film, all of them extremely suspenseful.  The best of these scenes is the aforementioned plane crash, which rivals the sequence in Fight Club for intensity. 
As a survival movie The Grey is fine, but what elevates it are the existential ideas behind the film.  The characters begin to question their situation.  Those of faith feel that there is a reason why they survived while those without consider it a simple coincidence.  The film doesn’t provide answers about faith, but rather makes a statement about the human spirit.  It is not faith that dictates life, it is the person.  Even with that point, there are deeper places you can go with this film.  The wolves can serve as physical representations of death.  The crash can be seen as a kind of purgatory in which the characters must acknowledge their faults and consider their lives.  Can you poke holes in any of these theories?  Absolutely, but isn’t it great that you can apply such ideas to a movie that is sold as “Liam Neeson vs. the wolves”? 
The Grey is not the action film that some may be hoping to see.  But if you keep an open mind, you’ll be pleasantly surprised (as I was) to find that it is a film with action elements that is much more concerned with saying something about humanity.  And when Liam Neeson wants to say something about humanity, you listen.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Sticking with the purgatory theme, a lot of it makes sense.  Diaz realizes his life has been a waste and makes peace with his death (one of my favorite scenes, by the way).  Hernandez realizes what is most important in his life.  Neeson accepts death, not just his own, but also his wife's.  And...that's it.  The other survivors who only survive to be killed don't really get those moments.  So why are they there aside from being wolf food?  Still, it's an interesting idea.  And the film still works outside the theme, so the point could just be about survival and acceptance and there doesn't need to be a reason.

I would definitely watch Liam Neeson vs. the Wolves.

Glad a bit of humor was thrown in there with the references to Alive and a character asking if Neeson was going to turn into a werewolf.

Hey God, when Liam Neeson calls You out, throw him a bone...don't just send more wolves.  That's a bit harsh.

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