Review: The Grey
Liam Neeson battles man and beast in Joe Carnahan’s contemplative yet brutal thriller about plane crash survivors trying to stay alive in the Alaskan wilderness.
Liam Neeson strips away modern living’s technological connectivity and penchant for salt-filled, fat-bulging convenience food in favour of caveman-style slumming in the Alaskan wilderness. Of course, his predicament, along with a bunch of other bearded oil workers, is enforced upon him after the plane carrying him home crashes during a storm. However, you get the sense that this introverted, melancholic alpha male is more at home in nature’s bosom than waking to a digital alarm alerting him to his nine to five in a characterless high-rise.
Neeson’s John Ottway represents The Grey’s key theme – man returning to a simpler way of living, surviving by adapting to and battling nature. Perhaps the fact these men earn their living digging for the natural world’s most cherished resource – oil – is co-writer and director Joe Carnahan’s wry aside, pre-empting their fight for survival when nature bites back. For when their plane crash lands, the handful of survivors have no time to pat their limbs to make sure they’re still attached. The Alaskan ice and snow might be inhospitable to man but it’s the playground of some of the world’s most fierce predators. It isn’t long before Ottway and the gang are being picked off one by one by a pack of wolves mightily pissed off at this man-made intrusion.
The Grey has a lot in common with Frank Marshall’s Alive. The 1993 disaster-survival film sees a college rugby team forced to survive the sub-zero temperatures of a mountainous nowhere in the Andes after their plane similarly crashes in bad weather. There’s also a distinct nod to 1997’s The Edge starring Anthony Hopkins and Alex Baldwin (man versus man versus bear), while Deliverance’s macho posturing and otherworldly reality makes an appearance too. And, particularly like Deliverance, there’s a tangible threat that goes beyond the lack of food, altitude sickness and blood-freezing cold, this time in the form of a pack of vicious, unrelenting wolves. Carnahan drives the story through the wolves’ constant, calculated attacks, creating a breathless tension that simmers ceaselessly underneath the surviving group’s dwindling sense of hope.
“Liam Neeson strips away modern living’s technological connectivity and penchant for salt-filled, fat-bulging convenience food in favour of caveman-style slumming in the Alaskan wilderness.”
Yet, The Grey never feels like a monster movie. Indeed, its “horror” is grounded in authenticity. Certainly, some wonderfully unsettling sequences are as good as anything found in John Carpenter’s icy thriller The Thing for instance. The sight of the wolves’ eyes appearing out of the darkness, reflected in firelight, or a rogue attack around a campfire (reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London) stand out but there’s more to The Grey than that.
Amidst the carnage, much of it off-screen, the experience of survival brings out the best and worst of people (one of the survivors starts looting the dead, for example). Perhaps most glaringly, Carnahan explores existence itself, and what brings meaning to life. In the hellish surroundings of the Alaskan wilderness, these terrified men cling to hope through the memories of their loved ones. It is the presence of death, it seems, that brings a sort of clarity. This is exampled early on in the film when a contemplative Ottway, considering suicide, is completely switched off to the inane barroom brawl and insignificant ramblings going on around him. Believing death is around the corner, he has already found his “clarity”. This develops an interesting dynamic within the surviving group that significantly moves the film away from the sort of anonymous deaths you see lined up in slasher films.
The Grey’s philosophical approach might be off-putting to some, while its lack of obvious closure invites questions not answers. However, as a thriller with substance, there are few missteps. The Grey motors along with a strong performance from Liam Neeson leading the way. It gets under the skin with some terrific sequences (the plane crash is particularly impressive in its horrid authenticity) while intelligently evoking the harshness of survival in characters we come to care about. As the man versus nature genre goes, the film certainly distinguishes itself as one of the best.
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan, Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale
Released: 2012 / Genre: Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB
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