Thursday, June 28, 2012
Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 117 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The Grey is a survival movie where it doesn't matter who survives. Or if anyone does. I thought I had the film all figured out within its first half hour, but then it slyly morphs into something else, with ambitions greater than the conventions of its genre usually allow. At the very least the blueprint is there for your standard action survivalist story. Plane crash. Men vs. wolves. When I first saw the wolves I expected the whole thing to devolve into a gruesome horror. The presence of Liam Neeson as the lead did little to temper the feeling it would be predictably fun, but forgettable. I wasn't completely right.. The wolves are beside the point. So is any potential rescue. Instead what director Joe Carnahan presents, in a surprisingly emotional way, is a spiritual parable about life and death. Mostly death.
A moment early on sets an unusual tone, and it comes after the plane John Ottway (Neeson) shares with a team of oil riggers crashes in a blizzard. He not only tells a mortally wounded passenger point-blank that he's going to die, but exactly how he'll feels and what he'll see. Then every after death after that (and there are many) allow us to actually see and practically feel that the description is accurate. Each fatality somehow seems monumentally important, despite the fact that we aren't given much time to get to know Ottway, Diaz (Frank Grillo), Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Flannery (Joe Anderson), Talget (an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney) and Burke (Nonso Anozie). At first they all seem interchangeable and merely bait for an eventual wolf supper, with only a fireside chat providing any background or history for the characters. Without spoiling too much, I'll say that changes in a big way as the the situation becomes more desperate and the body count climbs. It's only through their deaths that we get a better handle on who they were.
If any complaints could be made about the wolf attacks, it's not in the CGI (which is impressive), but the speed of them and the darkness, sometimes making it difficult to see what's happening, or to whom. But the attacks never merely play as an excuse for gore or action, and by the end there's a good case to be made that having so many of them is the more realistic approach. Having crash landed right in their territory it's unlikely many would survive for long, or at all. And even if the wolves don't get to them first, the elements will. The wolves' unpredictable behavior lend the story that same sense of not knowing who's going to go next. And then the script, rather cleverly, makes it clear that it doesn't even matter. This is about how people face death and the wolves just happen to be the means of arriving at it.
The characters are types, but they're drawn intelligently. This marks yet another bad ass role for Neeson, who at the age of sixty has evolved a full-fledged action star for the first time in his career, and a believable one at that. But this isn't an action role. At least not how Taken was. There's action in it for sure but mostly it relies on Neeson's intellectual abilities as an actor. Quietly intense, but also terrified himself, Ottway is the only man capable of rationally giving these men their best chance at survival because he deeply understands death and was touched by it somehow. We're not sure at first why he understands it so well, but Neeson makes sure we don't need to. And when we do finally know, the performance seems even deeper in hindsight. He might be the only action star working today capable of actually elevating the material he's in, adding a sense of genuine believability to the most extraordinary of situations. When he's in command it never feels like we're going through the motions of an ordinary action plot.
The other standout is Frank Grillo, who's given what's traditionally the most thankless of survival movie characters to play. He's that cocky asshole who's very existence in the story requires he pick fights and make enough dumb decisions to put everyone in danger. But Grillo--previously so believable as an MMA trainer in Warrior you'd think he was one--carries that same conviction here, turning what should be a one-dimensional cartoon into the film's emotional center. His performance really sneaks up on you, as you're prepared for one thing, but blindsided when he shifts gears and takes the character into a different mode that's entirely unexpected.
That this comes from the director of Smokin' Aces and The A-Team is surprising not because those films are particularly awful (well, The A-Team kind of is) but they're first and foremost mindless entertainment and it's customary to expect a certain type of movie from someone who makes those. This isn't that, despite me thinking at certain points during the opening act it would be. The cinematography and score are also huge steps up from any other project baring Caranhan's name, or even most releases dumped into theaters during the historically dreadful moviegoing month of January. If anything, it proves Neeson is one of the few great actors who's also a big draw in everyman action roles. Many will predictably dislike the ending of The Grey, which requires the audience to let go of their preconceived notions of the genre as much as the filmmakers do. But that's okay, since it isn't that often a story like this asks anything of its audience at all.