Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2012

The Grey

In Liam we trust

More fleshed-out than expected, 'The Grey' is an atmospheric tale of survival. And wolves.

The Grey
Open Road Films
Director: Joe Carnahan
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on the short story Ghost Walker, by Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Larry Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson
Rated R / 1 hour, 57 minutes
Opened January 27, 2012
(out of four)

I walked into The Grey normal and clean-shaven, and walked out with a full-grown beard and an extra testicle. See, when Liam Neeson teaches you what it means to be a man, the effect is instantaneous.

He's been doing this for years. I mean, the guy trained Batman and Darth Vader - when he opens his mouth, you listen. His track record speaks for itself. In this one, his training ground is the frozen emptiness of the Alaskan wilderness in the aftermath of a plane crash. That is, an Alaskan wilderness surrounded by a deep dark forest and lorded over by a pack of hungry wolves.

The Grey is ostensibly a slasher movie. The wintery Northern setting is the middle-of-nowhere town; the crashed plane is the car that runs out of gas in the woods; the wolves are the faceless, unconquerable killer; and our group of bearded heroes are the slutty teenagers getting picked off one by one.

There's a bit more to it than that, of course - in fact, there's an interesting (if somewhat awkward) philosophical bent to the whole thing that adds an unexpected sense of perspective and even warmth to it all. Writer/director Joe Carnahan slyly draws parallels between the social-cultural construct of the human survivors, and that of the pack of wolves hunting them in what we'll just call a territorial dispute.

One night we overhear some sort of conflict among the wolves; Ottway (Neeson) explains that the alpha has been challenged, a physical struggle ensued, and the schism was promptly put down. We realize the same thing is happening with the human characters, Ottway firmly establishing himself as the alpha, even against the belligerent resistance of Diaz (Frank Grillo), an ex-con who fits comfortably in the "guy who's only out for himself" role that all survival movies require.

The Grey has a marvelous sense of place that allows Carnahan to capture the desolation of it, creating an atmosphere of maddening nothingness where the hope of living until morning is the only solace. Shot on location in British Columbia, the film feels cold; it doesn't seem like anyone's faking it. That kind of credibility does wonders for this type of movie.

Though the wolves may be front-and-center as the primary antagonist, Carnahan spends most of his time giving us a feel for the characters' equally dangerous surroundings. The group's initial fears are virtually all wolf-related, but as they move along, civilization itself becomes just as foreboding, if not more so. Man vs. nature is just as old a struggle as man vs. beast, but the former is a more substantial and dramatically rich one, and this film understands that.

One thing I liked is the way the film handles death. Carnahan tends to make it a moment of genuine significance rather than plot - at least, after the first 20 minutes. He takes care not to make his deaths too exciting, subduing the proceedings with a sense of quiet mourning or regret. There's an underlying impulse to look away out of respect for the dead - or the dying. While I was bothered by some of his near-incoherent editing choices during action scenes, the filmmaking as a whole is pretty strong.

And without specifically giving anything away, I will say that there are ways the movie could have imposed itself on the story - all in the name of formula - and yet, impressively enough, it resists them. This deserves to be mentioned and commended.

Carnahan is an interesting case. The guy has unquestionable talent, but I've been waiting for him to really break out for a decade now - ever since he came out with Narc, a great neo-noir crime thriller that landed on my top 10 list for 2002. After that, there was a series of false starts and aborted projects, followed by the absolutely terrible Smokin' Aces, and then 2010's The A-Team, which actually wasn't all that bad but still not exactly worthy of his talents. The Grey is a step in the right direction.

And what can I say about Neeson? Now that I think about it, it seems like he's been underappreciated by everyone - myself included - after blending in so seamlessly as certain character types over the years. But his body of work is impressive, and I can think of few actors who could have nailed this role as perfectly as he does. I joked earlier about listening whenever he talked, given how often he's played sage-like or god-like roles. Well, perhaps that wasn't really a joke. After all, there aren't very many actors who can command our attention and respect the way he does. In just one brief moment in The Grey, he makes the simplicity of a four-line poem feel like a definitive comment on mankind.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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