These days, movie marketing seems to always do one of two things. It either shows far too much of the movie, spoiling any type of surprises it would have had in store for the audience, or it makes one out to be something it’s not. The trailers for director Joe Carnahan’s new film, The Grey, does both. The final shot of the entire film is actually in the commercials and it’s a shot that promises action, but The Grey is not an action movie. There are some thrills to be had, but this is a tale of survival, not constant gunfire and massive explosions. It’s going to disappoint some who go in with preconceived notions of what it should be in their head, but I plead you to keep an open mind instead. In a month normally designated for films the studio’s have no faith in, The Grey is a suspenseful, visceral, well made film that is absolutely worth a look.
Liam Neeson plays Ottway, an animal and weapons specialist who has been hired by an oil company to protect their drilling team from the numerous wild animals in Alaska. However, they never make it to the drilling site. On their way to their destination, their plane crashes and only a handful of them survive. The harsh weather conditions are enough to put them down for good, but unfortunately for them, there’s also a pack of wolves hunting them down. The plane has crashed somewhere near their den and the humans are seen as intruders.
The Grey doesn’t feature any aliens, robots, or even a human enemy. It’s merely about a group of men trying to survive the blistering cold and a pack of wolves and it’s as gripping as they come. It’s more suspenseful, interesting and, yes, frightening than most other movies in recent memory. Aside from a few unnecessary jump scenes, the creepiness derives from some excellent camerawork that frames the wolves in low lighting or emerging from a distance. The film also uses sound to a great degree to ratchet up the suspense, like one terrific scene where the guys are surrounded in the woods by the howling wolves, yet none are to be seen.
The delectable camerawork translates all through the movie, including the early plane crash scene where the camera pulls back through the entire cabin as the breath of the passengers waft through the air. Although due credit goes to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, the same man who filmed one of last year’s best films, Warrior, director Joe Carnahan deserves the most accolades. Director of 2010’s over-the-top, but still fun The A-Team and 2002’s largely forgotten, but nevertheless fantastic Narc, Carnahan brings a steady direction to what could have otherwise been a hectic, Hollywood-ized tale. He doesn’t ratchet up the pace or bring in any distracting or unnecessary filmic techniques (aside from the aforementioned jump scenes). He crafts a movie that is about people and their will to survive even when the odds weigh heavily against them.
In that sense, it’s something that viewers will be able to connect to, even though they most likely haven’t been in a similar situation. Still, The Grey isn’t perfect. There are some humorous references to other films, the most effective being Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, but it’s a wink and a nod that doesn’t need to be there and although it will go over most people’s heads, those who have seen it will be pulled out of the movie. There are also some scenes that work great when isolated, but don’t work when in the context of the larger picture, like an early death scene after the plane crash where Ottway stands over one of the passengers and calms him down as he slowly dies. This moment is written and acted well, but we don’t even know who this guy is. The emotion isn’t there despite the technically effective production of the scene. I’m not too sure about the iffy ending either, given the dreamlike moments leading up to it where Ottway’s wife tells him to not be afraid. It seems to go through a sudden change, behaviorally and thematically, though to go into further detail would be ruining too much.
So there are some notable blunders, but whereas most movies would be dragged down tremendously for such mistakes, The Grey stands strong. Scenes that would be full of meandering dialogue in other movies serve to enhance character personalities and motivations here, so when something does happen to one of them, it hits you hard. The first couple months of every year usually bring some rotten movies to theaters, but if what follows can live up to the unexpected quality of The Grey, we’re in for a pleasant movie going year.
The Grey receives 4/5