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The Grey (2012)

January 28, 2012


written by: Joe Carnahan and Ian McKenzie Jeffers (based on his book, Ghost Walker)

produced by: Joe Carnahan, Jules Daly, Mickey Liddel & Ridley Scott

directed by: Joe Carnahan

rating: R (for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and pervasive language)

runtime: 117 minutes

U.S. release date: January 27, 2012


In order to sell Joe Carnahan’s new action thriller “The Grey” to moviegoers, they needed to focus on what folks have come to expect from Liam Neeson this time of year. It started with the success of “Taken”, a couple years back and continued with last year’s flop, “Unknown”, both released around this time of the year. With his quiet and coarse voice, the towering Neeson became an unlikely yet fitting action star. “The Grey” is unlike those two films or other big-budget Hollywood survival films, but from the looks of the “man vs. wild” TV spots and theatrical trailers, you’d never know. In fact, it’s almost comical to see a bloodied Neeson strap liquor bottles shrapnel to his knuckles and charge a menacing black wolf.  Before I saw the film, it seemed silly, and now that I have, it seems crazy because that scene isn’t even in it.

Despite the misleading ads, this is far more than a full-on war between savage wolves and an Irish actor leading a group of rag-tag survivors. “The Grey” is rather a grim existential horror film, snowed with poignant pathos and chilling terror. It feels more like an indie film than any mainstream action flick.

The story drops us in the darkness of an Alaskan night, where we meet loner John Ottway (Liam Neeson, who reunites with “The A-Team” helmer Carnahan, after co-star Bradley Cooper dropped out), making his way into a loud rec room at the oil refinery where he works, as a mess of other lowlifes and outcasts enjoy coarse cavorting. It’s the last night on the gig before everyone is loaded into a plane back to Anchorage. As Ottway sits at the bar, the camera zooms in on him, with his vacant stare and furrowed brow, and all exterior noise fades away. There’s something going on with this troubled man. He is distracted, consumed by his thoughts and possibly inner demons.

We start to see intercut scenes of Ottway sitting down in his quarters, writing a letter to his wife (Anne Openshaw, from Carnahan’s “Narc”), followed by tender images of them laying in their bed together from his memory. It’s clear his current disposition has something to do with his wife, but it’s unclear if they are divorced or separated because of his behavior, or if something else happened to them/her.

Whatever it is, it’s led him to kneel outside in the snow with the business end of his rifle in his mouth. He doesn’t go through with it though. For, whatever troubles Ottway already has, we know he’s about to experience much more in this godforsaken place as he boards a plane with everyone else the next day.



Carnahan establishes quite a bit in these opening scenes, without insulting us with any needless exposition. We get an idea what kind of men we’ll be spending the next two hours with, as well as what kind of work they do. Ottway’s specific job is as a positioned sharpshooter, making sure the men working on the pipeline are protected from attacks by the indigenous animals surrounding the area – aka, wolves. Beyond some initial narration from Neeson’s character (appropriately moody and monotone), at no point do we have a character or a scene that just comes out and spells everything out for us. After all, these are men of few words, so it makes sense that Carnahan has the same approach.

While the set-up is somewhat stereotypical, it’s still much more minimal than what we’ve come to expect from this kind of film – especially for a January release. Of course, all this leads up to the expected plane crash, and considering there have been countless crashes on the big-screen and television (that pilot episode of Lost still raises hairs, thank you Mr. Abrams), Carnahan actually does something different by building the intensity from within. Balancing nerve-wracking sounds like the creaking fuselage from the jolting turbulence with intimate close up shots of Ottway and the anxious passengers. Carnahan even allows the cabin’s cold temperature to add to the suspence, as the camera quietly pans out down the lone aisle, capturing breath circling in the air like plumes of smoke.

Then it happens. And instead of some ground level exterior CGI shot of a plane breaking apart, we see fast and frenzied camera work, just as if it would happen if we were there. But Carnahan locks on Neeson during this time – not because he’s the star, but rather because we’re already invested in him. So, as everything breaks apart around him and he is lost in visions of his beautiful wife, tellin him, “Don’t be afraid”, we are right there with her, hoping he can muster the strength to carry on.

Amongst the snow-swept wreckage, Ottway tries to help the injured (without much success) and soon finds himself with about a half-dozen survivors, searching for warmth, food, and anything else they can find. There are some stock characters among them, such as: the volatile Latino (Frank Grillo) who refuses to show fear or except Ottway’s defacto leadership, the hard-working father (an indistinguishable, but good Dermot Mulroney) who longs to get back with his daughter, and the quasi-religious minded guy (Dallas Roberts) that is tries to keep everyone together, both physically and emotionally. Sure, these are familiar types, but the screenplay allows for decent, even thought-provoking characterization (usually during moments of campfire rest), while they make their way to a forest in hopes of defending themselves from the pursuing wolves.



As for those wolves, with their glowing eyes – they are indeed frightening. Mainly because it’s their environment and how slim the options are to fend them off, let alone persevere through the brutal atmosphere these hounds call home. The violence here is real and vicious, but like the best thrillers, Carnahan knows that what is most frightening is what you don’t see. Hearing the constant yelping and the howling and the growling really did a number on my psyche as I sat in the theater, and made me wonder – at what point would I break in this situation or would I turn into someone else entirely?

In that sense, “The Grey” kind of reminded me of “The Walking Dead” (moreso the Robert Kirkman comic than the AMC series), and the toll it takes on a group and an individual to endure, move on, and especially maintain some semblance of who you are. Despite the clichéd bickering and bonding, there is some thought-provoking observances thrown about among this battered group. We know these men are going to die, just as they do, but they’re all holding on to a chance that something will happen, or at least holding on to an image of someone dear to them worth going on for. To live, they must navigate unbelievably challenging terrain, but the survival mode starts in their heads, putting aside any bravura and embracing their fears.

In the end, regardless of what they’ve done or where they’re from, these men are all the same. Such commonality combined with the “man vs. nature” survival subgenre is always intriguing to me. In many ways, “The Grey” is comparable to “Frozen” and “127 Hours” with their similar environments and antagonists (both feral and geographic), but at the same time, I was surprised by its unexpected weight and depth. Those seeking yet another Neeson actioner will surely be satisfied (thankfully, minus any wolf fisti-cuffs with the actor) and might even find their thoughts lingering back to more than just the action, long after viewing.



RATING: ***1/2



15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2012 9:59 am

    Great review. Neeson is out-standing here and gives probably one of his best performances that we have seen from him in a very long time. The rest of the film also works because there’s not only this certain paranoia going on but even when the “action” comes, it’s tense, brutal, and surprising. Best film of the year so far even though that’s definitely not saying much. Check out my review when you get the chance.

  2. February 9, 2012 12:14 am

    You don’t see many films like this one, not anymore. It seemed like a 70’s film – maybe a “Jeremiah Johnson”, or a “Deliverance”, but shot and edited in a more modern style. I thought it was great, every bit as good as at least 3 of the 4 films I’ve seen that are currently up for a Best Picture Oscar.

    Everything was really good, but the acting was particularly impressive. I predict a Best Supporting Oscar nomination next year for Frank Grillo. I didn’t even recognize him from his role in “Warrior”, which I just saw (and really enjoyed) last week. Keep an eye on this guy.

    I have just two mild gripes about the film, both of which, I think, have to do with editing choices:

    I thought the flashbacks or memories of Ottway’s (Neeson) father and wife were a little ineffective. They seemed more like ghosts, pushing wispy hints of ideas at him, than the deep meaningful memories I think they were supposed to be.

    And also, the ending. I’m fine with how the story ended, but I think how they did it could have been much stronger. *SPOILER ALERT* The “fight and die” theme/poem should have been hammered in with a little more gusto earlier, so that when we get there at the end, we really understand those sentiments as Ottway does. Perhaps some better reaction shots earlier, of Ottway struggling to accept Diaz’s decision to pack it in. In the final scene, and just before it, I felt like we needed to linger a bit longer with Ottway, so we could make that same decision along with him. But then again…as so many are saying, there are existential themes here. HIS choice, Ottway’s, and no one else’s, including the audience’s, is therefore what’s important. So, I’m not gonna hold the end scene against the film too much. Just the final shot. I’m really getting annoyed by the very predictable cut to black endings, such as the one in this film. As soon as these films begin that final shot, you can feel it’s gonna happen. Time to put that one to rest and come up with something new.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 9, 2012 8:37 am

      Well, Grillo may have a shot at Oscar gold when “The Grey” gets rereleased in the fall for awards consideration – at least those are the rumors. An interesting tactic, for sure, and one you don’t see that often. I certainly cannot recall the last time a film was released this early in the year and then again later on. This is the first where I’ve seen the studio talk about it as the movie is released on its first run.

      I liked how you described the flashback imagery as ghosts – it’s actually quite fitting. These are memories that haunt Ottway in someway or another, from a time that he will never return to and never get back. It seems appropriate for such a setting. While, I don’t think they were ineffective, at times they did kind of pull me out of the immediate environment, but may maybe that’s just what they were doing to Ottway as well.

      I spoke with someone about “The Grey” just last night and he said he didn’t like the ending – he even caught the end credit scene – and still didn’t like it. So be it. I didn’t mind the blackout ending here, especially since seeing the two Alphas (wolf and man) go at it would’ve been redundant; and honestly couldn’t see it ending any other way.


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