The premise and pedigree of this picture don’t promise much: Neeson’s recent action record is quite literally fifty-fifty (and I don’t need to explain which is which) and while Carnahan was once a promising up and comer his record of late is one of crass and concaving returns, so the idea off being trapped with them for two hours was, I will admit, not an instantly appealing one. Then the film starts. It opens on clinical shots of a cold and desolate oil derrick and overlays them with some stunningly sincere narration from Neeson; It’s a sequence from a Malick movie, something Werner would have shot (and the script itself just short of name-drops that infamous director in a rather witty way). It’s altogether not what I had expected, perhaps everything is not as black and white as I had first thought.
It turns out though that everything in The Grey is also not as well shaded as the name may suggest. Neeson’s introductory monologue does an amazing job of setting the scene for the rest of the cast, but it seemingly sets the bar too high for them to clear, despite them all being talented actors elsewhere. The supports that survive the crash along Ottway are monochromatic at best, given one defining trait to serve them throughout, and at worst they are grey in the complete wrong way. For a long while they are all indistinguishable from one another, we’re unable to tell one beard from another within the blizzard, and thus they become invisible to us. Even Neeson, the sole star and obvious stand out, is never given too much deep material to work with, though he gives a great performance nevertheless.
The story too is to similar to everything that you have seen before in the survival genre; the cast bicker and act boldly as one by one they are picked off by the lurking lupine threat that they cannot leave behind. So the movie then is a write-off? Perhaps even a ’Worst of the Year’ contender? No, not at all. In fact the inverse is true; of course it’s still early yet but 2012 is going to have to deliver for this not to make my ’Top Ten’ come December ( if of course it does). “What? How? Why?” You may be wondering and my answer comes in the form of more questions. Who cares about other people when you yourself are in danger? Who cares if the action you take is cliché when you’re combating with both the elements and actual wolves? Nobody and trust me, this movie takes you there, the execution here is just that excellent.
The picture puts you in the position of these panicked passengers, just for a moment you are trapped in the mountains with them, and it does it by making the action incredibly intimate; scenes are shot from very close up, from with-in the fervour rather than outside of it as an objective observer. Despite this fact the film is still stunningly shot, never adopting the doco-esque cinéma vérité styling’s of Greengrass and his cohorts when it could instead do something cinematic, which given the British-Columbian setting is quite often. All this technical talk though is little more than pedantry because the film lives and dies (on this day) in the phenomenological. What Carnahan has done here is create a visceral experience unlike any other, one that is instinctual and involving in all the right ways. If you were to sit there in the theatre thinking about it then sure there are some plot-holes and imperfections but if you’re watching it right then your mind will be within the movie, worrying more about when and where the Wolves will strike next.
The film then tests the endurance of its audience as well as its cast and characters, it’s not an easy watch: certain scenes will shock you more than any stereotypical slasher ever can, some will sicken you if you are squeamish, while others will test your patience as you are forced to watch these people slog through the physical and mental stoppages that they hit along the way. In this way it reminds me most of The Walking Dead, the blend of suspense and spoken philosophy is the same. Ultimately the movie is not just about wolves and the winter wilderness, it’s an existential look at the animalistic urges of us, human beings; these people that we are following mirror the pack almost perfectly, they are men of machismo and masochism and they follow the orders of their own Alpha. Though these elements, and anything to do with the more evolved emotions such as sadness, lack the finesse of the fights by the time the finale hits their function becomes clear and the film is elevated for having them.
So though the title suggests something mercurial the contrast between The Grey and Carnahan’s previous works couldn’t be any clearer. There is a class of craft here that he has never displayed before, even in the admirably made Narc, one that suggests his future will likely be brighter than that of these men. Higher reason and pretentious posturing will only stand in your way when watching this movie but that doesn’t mean you need to ‘shut off your mind’, just your sentience. The Grey as a purely primal experience is exactly why action cinema exists, to take on a dangerous adventure so that you don’t really have to, and sometimes it is just as simple as that.