Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Man on Film: The Grey

While the trailer certainly doesn't indicate this, it is not much of a stretch to say that The Grey is Joe Carnahan's most existentially concerned film to date. Of course, this is the man who directed Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, so the bar is not set especially high on that front.

Set against the harsh backdrop of the wintry Alaskan wilderness, The Grey pits the survivors of a plane crash against the elements and a pack of gray wolves. These survivors had all been flying home from the Arctic oil drilling post that, we learn from Neeson's character John Ottway, is populated by "outcasts, rejects, convicts, assholes: men unfit for mankind,' but the plane goes down in an area so remote as to render being found unlikely at best. With six surviving the crash, they are left with little choice but to work together to try to get back to civilization.

What follows is a harrowing, albeit predictable journey. With each man's death, there is a corresponding telegraphing of their fall. That isn't to say that their deaths are not affective, but you are never caught off guard by one.

What does work is Liam Neeson. John Ottway is at the remote drilling operation tasked with killing wolves that threaten the business and its workers. In its open, The Grey shows Ottway at the end of his rope, writing a suicide note to his [estranged? ex-?] wife and then going off to kill himself at the perimeter of the facility when a wolf crosses his line of sight. He shoots the wolf, puts a comforting hand on the wolf as it breathes its last breaths, and elects not to commit suicide. Having gotten on the plane to go back to civilization only to have it crash*, Ottway stumbles to the plane from where he came to in the snow. What follows is the best scene in the film. As Ottway eases Lewenden (James Badge Dale of 24, Rubicon, and The Pacific) toward inevitable death, the film reaches epic heights and leaves the audience hoping that gets there again.

*And crash it does. The scene pops of the screen. It is visceral and violent, jarring the audience; setting them permanently on edge.

It doesn't. That isn't a damning statement, but it doesn't get there again. Neeson leads these men blindly into the wilderness, hoping in vain to reach civilization. Neeson is great, clearly drawing from the emotional turmoil that his wife's death has caused him to make the sorrow and longing for Ana palpable. His rebirth as an action hero, while oddly timed as he turns 60 this year, makes all the more sense in The Grey. It is an atypical but gripping survival tale, one that can be read many ways but seems primarily concerned with manhood serving an allegorical purpose exploring the contentious relationship between man and nature, nature and man. While the ending is a bit vague, it does seem as though it lends itself to the interpretation that the two are likely fated to mutually assured destruction. Given the ultimately hopeless story, this seems as reasonable a reading as any.

Regardless, this film has much loftier, if not entirely attained, goals than one could possibly have expected from the director of a film in which its heroes fly a tank.

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