Written & Directed by Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, and Dallas Roberts
MPAA: R – For Violence/Disturbing Content Including Bloody Images, And Pervasive Language]
Every year, studios drop all the movies they have no faith in on the month of January. This usually means some of the worst and most forgettable films of the year are dropped into what the movie-geek community likes to call “The January Dead-Zone”, a place where good cinema is scarce and the only source of refuge is watching last year’s Oscar contenders being ushered into theaters so mainstream viewers who didn’t catch up with them before Awards season could catch up.
But every once in a blue moon, the planets would align and a beautiful and unique snowflake of a movie would find itself dropped in this January dead-zone to save audiences from boredom, and this year, it’s The Grey, which I am currently naming the best film of 2012. Not because there haven’t been that many good movies, mind you. Actually, I’m awarding it that title because this film will be hard to beat, even by the time December rolls out. The Grey isn’t just “good for a January movie”, it’s a great movie in general. A rich, gripping survival film populated with characters you care about, with a tension and atmosphere that sends chills down your spine, and a fantastic performance from Liam Neeson that–if the movie was released in December–would’ve been an easy Oscar contender for one of the best performances of that year. Yes, it’s that good.
The Grey opens with an oil drilling team in Alaska getting ready to drop into their next site. Liam Neeson plays John Ottway; a man who, after having his wife leave him, exiles himself to Alaska to join the team. His job is to guard the oil drillers from intruding wolves and “take care of them” before they “take care of the crew”. He enters the plane ready to go to the next site, but finds himself waking up from a horrific crash that finds he and seven other survivors stranded in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. Having to seek shelter and ways to maintain warmth in the harsh coldness of the tundra, Ottway and the survivors find themselves the targets of a bigger problem: a ravenous pack of wolves who see the men as intruders.
The Grey has been marketed as an action thriller, boasting its lead action star Liam Neeson in all the promotional material, as well as a shot of him preparing to punch an alpha wolf using hand-crafted knuckles made out of broken bottles and tape. It was easy to make fun of the film as “LIAM NEESON: WOLF-PUNCHER” and see it as some sort of over-the-top, but still laughably super-serious version of a survival film.
But what really surprised me was just how deep The Grey got. Survival films are usually dark material, what with man having to be reduced to his animalistic nature in order to survive nature itself, but The Grey takes that and makes it even bleaker.
Part of this is thanks to Joe Carnahan’s fantastic direction of the film. Carnahan was critically praised for his directorial debut, the crime thriller Narc, but followed that with middling but commercially successful action films such as Smoking Aces and The A-Team. Here, Carnahan is given wildly different material from his previous work, and pulls it off in spades. The way he constructs the wilderness in The Grey really makes the audiences feel the overwhelming cold, dread, and fear that the survivors are constantly surrounded by. Snow blankets the land as cold surrounds them; the survivors are enshrouded by fog in the morning and pitch-darkness at night, making sure that if a wolf comes in for a surprise attack, they won’t be able to see it coming; even the sound design is able to send shivers down the spine as wind howls much in the same way that the wolves do; the viewer is completely enveloped in this fear as it slowly closes in on them, much like the survivors in the film.
The other thing that makes The Grey darker than your average survival thriller is that it has a surprisingly deep rooting in philosophical quandaries. As the survivors begin to bond, we are asked the question: Are these men really worth saving? Why would they even want to be saved, if their lives haven’t even been worth living? When you live your life in a monotonous cycle–waking up, going to work, going back home, getting drunk, fulfilling nothing, bed, repeat–would you prefer to die surrendering yourself to an unstoppable force more powerful than yourself, such as Nature?
It is these questions that not only imbue the film with a bleakness uncommon in a mainstream release, but also elevates the material to more than just a gripping survival tale, but a thought-provoking meditation on faith and discovering meaning in your existence.
If all you want is a gripping survival tale, however, then The Grey definitely delivers on that front as well. Thanks to a fantastic cast of mostly no-name actors–with the exception of Liam Neeson, of course–each of the survivors feels fleshed out with his own strong characterizations. It’s rare for a film featuring a fairly large cast of main characters that I’m actually able to distinguish which person is which, and you actually care about each of them.
Then there’s Liam Neeson, who employs his talents both as a hardcore badass from roles such as Taken, plus a more vulnerable and raw side that we haven’t seen from him in a while. If there’s one man you can buy as a man who’s an expert on how to fend off wolves who becomes the authoritative leader of a group of “men unfit for mankind”, Liam Neeson is obviously the best choice anyone could possibly make.
If there’s one thing that doesn’t work in the film, and this is just a nit-pick, the scenes where we get flashbacks of Liam Neeson with his wife or as a child bonding with his father all felt rather hollow and artificial in what was otherwise a visceral and intimate experience. But even these scenes had touches that I loved, such as the way Carnahan melds the flashbacks with touches of reality that interrupt the flow; like when Liam Neeson is dreaming of resting beside his wife, only to be lifted up from the bed and wake up to find the plane he’s in plummeting to the ground.
All in all, The Grey is the first must-see film of 2012, and you should all do yourself a favor and see it.
Final Verdict: Bleak, uncompromising, intense, and pitiless; but still raw, emotional, and surprisingly thought-provoking. The Grey is a survival film that leaves you gasping for air, but is elevated even further by raw performances, philosophical food for thought, and great direction from Joe Carnahan. It’s the first legitimately great movie of 2012. See it.
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See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m never going outside again. Those wolves are scary motherfuckers…