3 February 2012

THE GREY- Review

There has to come a point where we stop judging films by the way the trailers sold us on seeing them. Too many people have come out of The Grey, a superb philosophical action movie that's simply the best man vs. nature exploitation flick since Jaws, complaining that they expected "Liam Neeson- Wolf Puncher" from the marketing. Joe Carnahan's film is demonstrably better than the studio marketing promised. Hell, if the studio had been smart enough to release the film a month or two earlier, it could have been ignored by the Oscars, which is always the mark of a true classic. You couldn't expect that of Taken or Unknown.

But this time around, Neeson plays Ottway, a character whose backstory has uncomfortable echoes of the actor's own personal life, who isolates himself from humanity by serving as security for a bunch of reprobates and ex-cons at an Alaskan oil-drilling station. While returning to civilisation, there's a horrific plane crash that kills all of them except for Ottway and six other survivors. If the cold and unforgiving climate doesn't kill them, the ravenous wolves, in whose territory they are stranded, definitely will.

Honestly, I haven't been as bowled over by a film as when I saw The Grey, since I first saw The Dark Knight. While the trailers and marketing gave me the impression of something slightly exaggerated and ridiculous, the film itself is astonishingly pessimistic and thoughtful, while still ladling out the requisite amount of action scenes, which unfortunately became the whole story of those trailers. The film is extremely intense throughout, not only during the action scenes, but especially in the interactions between the surviving men, forced to work together against a hopeless situation.

It comes to a point where the few brief moments of levity seem much funnier than they would be in isolation, although the early instance of Ottway calling a wolf a motherfucker, before beating on it, would seem to come out of one of his less cerebral action films. The humour between the seven survivors is predictably pitch black, but unlike many other films with a multitude of male supporting characters, the survivors each have distinguishable characters, which develop memorably throughout the film, and make it easier to invest emotionally in a film that is more than prepared to destroy its characters, whether they work together or not.

This dysfunctional ensemble is very well cast, with particularly good performances from Frank Grillo, in what initially seems like the allocated asshole role, and of course, Neeson himself. I alluded to Natasha Richardson in my summary of the story, only because the comparisons in Ottway's mourning of his absent wife are undeniably there. I think it is both speculative and slighly tactless to presume, as some have, that Neeson is only so much better here because this is some kind of therapy for him. I think the unexpectedly intellectual tone of the film is what has invited such analysis, where, say, Wrath of the Titans will not, but regardless of his private life, Neeson's performance is extraordinary, and his best in a long, long time.

But it is so much more about the men, than about the wolves, and that's where any criticism of the computer-generated wolves falls down flat. Admittedly, the wolves don't look great, but the way that they are used makes me suspect that director Joe Carnahan knew that. Just as Spielberg sparingly used Bruce the shark before him, Carnahan privileges the suspense and the thrill of their off-screen presence over the visceral thrills of wolves constantly being on screen. The wolves' behaviour in the film is exaggerated in a way that pits them against the men's attitudes to death, rather than making them into monsters. From a human point of view, they're ruthless, certainly, but neither are they cartoonish animal terrorists.

It's less true of this film than it was of War Horse, that the animal involvement is incidental. With the wolves used so sparingly as to preserve their effectiveness, they're absent for some stretches of the film, but when you recognise that the film is about the response of these men, when taken even further from civilisation than they were before all of the trouble began, the philosophical elements are entirely consistent. I only talk about how thoughtful it is, because it is thoughtful, but it's also just as pulse-pounding and unpredictable as horror fans could want. It's certainly much scarier than many horror films in recent years, giving weight to the way in which death finds its characters by firmly establishing how each of them react in the face of death.

False expectations be damned! I maintain that The Grey does for man-vs-nature exploitation flicks, what Drive did for superficial 80s-nostalgia and neo-noir, and it has much more going on behind the eyes, to boot. Those fans of Neeson who've followed him through his recent resurgence through guilty pleasure action films will find enough to enjoy, in the use of glass knuckles, twigs that shoot wolves and heavy, tough-guy dialogue, but moreover, it exhibits Carnahan's suddenly formidable skill as a director. This is superbly directed, genuinely astonishing stuff, and its ruminations upon death actually add to the horror elements, rather than detract. If you ask me, this is an instant classic of its genre.

The Grey is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen The Grey, why not share your comments below? It's easily better than any of this year's Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, so if you haven't seen it, do so! Now!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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