Character trumps mindless action in The Grey

The Grey star Liam Neeson and director Joe Carnahan have both been living it up in Hollywood productions for the last several years.  Neeson continues to pop up as some grizzled badass who will kill your childhood puppy, and Carnahan has been making zany slick action flicks like Smokin’ Aces and A-Team after making a big splash in 2002 with his gritty cop drama Narc (Ray Liotta, Jason Patric).  With The Grey, Carnahan and Neeson both return with less pomp and more dramatic flavor.

Neeson stars as John Ottway, a stellar marksman hired to work at the edge of the world to protect oil riggers from wolves looking for a tasty snack.  He’s floating through his existence with little purpose after his wife leaves him (we’re not given the details until later). Then, a traumatic plane crash in the Alaskan tundra suddenly makes the listless Ottway instrumental in keeping the survivors warm, fed, and out of the bellies of hungry wolves.

Where The Grey truly excels is within the inner space of its characters, particularly Ottway.  Our introduction to the man is haunting, both in the handheld, grainy shots with which Carnahan frames Ottway, as well as Marc Steitenfeld’s mythic score enunciating our hero’s melancholy.  Brooding and handy with a rifle, Ottway could easily become a caricature, but his ability to ease another character’s mind early in the film speaks to the man’s depth.  By the closing moments, the film is able to reconnect its emotional tissue, and leave you with a holy moment you’ll find it difficult to forget.

Neeson isn’t alone in making The Grey engaging.  The powerful sound design stresses the isolation of the wintry hellscape with howling, disorienting wind, only later to scare the bejesus out of you as we’re yanked from dreamland to harrowing reality.  The Grey isn’t only dramatic, it’s freakin’ terrifying at times.

Where it barely functions is the “Run from the wolves!” second act, which causes the film to lose its emotional focus.  You can’t merely show an image of a monster to induce fear, they have to be just as properly developed characters to be equal antagonists equal to their protagonists (the Joker).  Considering the themes of life and death, man vs. nature, it’s unfortunate the ever present wolves weren’t able to enhance the thematic material – they were annoying plot devices.

Despite the wolves, a literal leap of logic (“We have to jump off this cliff to escape the wolves!”), some structural glitches in the story, and the occasional step into shit dialogue, it’s a damn shame that other disaster/survivalist films can’t be as rich as this one.  The Grey‘s bookended emotional peaks make it worth recommending and you have to respect a film with the cojones to end where most people would kill to see the rest.  That’s where The Grey shows its hand: despite the wolf wankery for much of the feature, the ending stresses that it’s the battle within that matters most.

If you were a fan of John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of The Road, The Grey should be your cup of hard-boiled tea.

-Remington Smith

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