Movie Review: The Grey
Joe Carnahan is a director known mostly for his pulpy action work. Between helming and writing such action affairs as Smoking Aces and The A-Team he’s not really known for making introspective and melancholic films. It’s not that those earlier films were bad; many people love Smoking Aces and I’m a sucker for anything with the name “The A-Team” on it, but they aren’t exactly know for being heavyweights in the drama department.
This all makes Carnahan’s work on the recently released Liam Neeson vehicle The Grey all the more interesting.
While The Grey is by no means a perfect film, it is an interesting and sometimes moving thriller with a fabulous performance by Neeson, downright beautiful filming locations, and some spectacular sound design.
Neeson plays Ottway, a man hired to protect workers at an Alaskan oil refinery from wolves. On his way back to Juneau his plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Ottway and six other survivors must then band together to survive the elements, and more importantly the large wolf pack that is hunting the men.
Ottway theorizes that the plane has crashed near the wolves den and if they do not move away from it the predators will continue to attack: not for food, but because they perceive the lost men to be a threat to their pack. So the men (sometimes begrudgingly) follow Ottway into the wilderness in an attempt to survive.
You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the other men in any detail, and the reason is simply that these men are almost all woefully underdeveloped. It’s one of the great travesties of The Grey. Aside from Frank Grillo as Diaz, who doesn’t understand why the group is listening to Ottway and protests, most of the other men in the cast don’t really get any time to shine. Sure, some of them get a moment or two of exposition, but it is usually at the last moment before they leave the movie.
Neeson himself does an impeccable job of portraying Ottway, and between his sad emotional scars, his need to try to save these men, and several small flashbacks to his prior life we get to know Ottway a whole hell of a lot more than any of the other men that make up the cast. Ottway’s story of grief, loss, and loss of faith is moving and very well done on screen. If nothing else, the film is worth seeing simply for Neeson’s performance. In a time of the year where the weekends are filled with dreck in the theaters, this performance shines above the rest.
The film was shot around Vancouver, British Columbia and the vistas, snow drenched valleys, and beautiful forests that surround the actors almost take on a life of their own. Sure, it’s a lot of… well, grey and white, but, when the snow isn’t whipping around violently the film looks simply stunning. Carnahan makes the world of The Grey stunning to look at; it’s a stark contrast to the gruesome proceedings that include many deaths.
And those proceedings, while firmly in the “real world”, often feel like a horror movie. One of the downfalls of The Grey is Carnahan’s use of jump scares. Much like a horror movie, everyone will be fine until something jumps and attacks with no warning. At first it isn’t an issue, but then it happens again… and again. In a movie that is not horror and at least tries to play straight with its audience, it is sad that it sometimes stoops so low for its shocks.
The one thing that does work in favor of those jump scares is the impressive sound design. Everything from the blowing wind to the wolves, to the men’s anguished screams, sounds great. In particular the sound of the airplane crash is incredible. It’s visceral and loud. As film-nerdish as it is to geek out about something as mundane as sound design, I really must compliment Carnahan for how brilliant the whole thing sounds.
I wish I could say the same thing about the CG. The wolves that follow the cast around the wilderness are almost all created by computer graphics and simply don’t work. When the pack is hidden in darkness it’s fine, but Carnahan insists on making the wolves the main obstacle that the cast faces, which means you see them numerous times throughout the film. When the wolves appear in clear daylight they just look downright laughable.
The Grey runs for 117 minutes (with a small coda after the credits ensuring you’ll be in your seat for that entire time), and feels like it could probably stand to lose about fifteen or so minutes off that time. It’s not that The Grey really drags, but it does seem to cover the same ground several times (wolf attack at the plane crash at night, wolf attack at the plane crash in the day, etc.). These are issues that could have been solved with another pass through the editing bay.
In the end, I found the compelling story of Neeson’s character (and the resolution, which is a fantastic scene) and his acting to be more than enough to keep me entertained. The beautiful setting and sound design add a couple other reasons why I liked The Grey. I may not feel compelled to visit The Grey’s bleak world again, but as an early year film it’s certainly not a bad way to waste a couple of hours.