Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Grey

Alternate Title:  A Series of Cries in the Dark

One sentence synopsis: The survivors of a plane crash try to escape a pack of man-eating wolves in the wilds of Alaska

Things Havoc liked: Fifteen years ago, Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins starred in a film called "The Edge", about survivors of an airplane crash who must outwit hostile wild animals in Alaska and make it back to civilization. Having apparently decided that the aforementioned film was insufficiently authoritative on the subject, Ridley Scott decided to make another film on the exact same subject, this time starring Liam Neeson and a whole crew of unknown actors, and replacing the Kodiak Bear with a pack of wolves. While this situation certainly lends itself to comments on Hollywood's lack of new ideas, it is worth mentioning that The Grey essentially works itself out to be the movie that The Edge was trying to be.

Directed by Joe Carnahan, an action director known for making awful action movies (The A-Team was his last feature), this film is, astonishingly, nothing of the sort. I've heard it described as a character study, but that's not really accurate either. At times it plays like a horror movie, as our heroes are stalked by a pack of ruthless, almost supernatural wolves (more on that below), and yet at other times it feels like a travelogue of men hiking through the scenic backwoods of Alaska. The pace is slow and deliberate, and the writing on-point and brisk, and the score (one of the best I've heard in a long while) is atmospheric and haunting, particularly during the last third or so, and serves to give the events of the film an almost operatic quality. The cinematography, clearly taking inspiration from the film's title, is bleak and dour, giving us half-glimpsed shadows at the edge of perception that might be figments of our imagination, or more wolves come to devour us. The best comparison I can make is actually with Alien, another excellent Ridley Scott film about a dwindling group of people being stalked by a super-human menace. But while Alien reveled in Geigeresque horror, this film has a dour, almost Bergman-like feel to it.

Liam Neeson is not always the wisest of men when it comes to selecting scripts, and his most recent films (The A-Team, Unknown, Taken, the upcoming Battleship) are mostly brainless action extravaganzas wherein he plays a morose silent badass who efficiently kills everything in sight. This movie takes the same character (here a professional wolf-hunter named John Ottway) and drops him in a setting wherein he's no longer the apex predator. The result is startlingly effective, particularly because the movie surrounds him with other characters (mostly no-name actors), all of whom act and behave the way men in a situation like this might well act. While we get the usual cliches of the disaster-survivor-film genre, including the "braggart who claims to be without fear", "the believer", and "the nerd", none of these archetypes are overplayed. They feel like a bunch of oil workers on the edge of the world, tough men who find themselves in an even tougher situation. The writing does not let any of the characters down, not even Neeson, and gives them lines to say that actually sound like real people might say them. This is more of a rarity in this genre than one might think.

Things Havoc disliked: I hate to be a pedant, but wolves do not work that way.

Yes, wolves do occasionally kill people. I accept this. But no wolves in the history of the world have ever behaved the way the wolves in this film does. No man-eating wolves have ever behaved like this, not even desperate, starving wolves, which these are explicitly not. I get that the film required a legitimate antagonist to threaten the heroes, but the wolves here resemble real ones in the same way the gorillas from Congo do the real thing. While I can accept a certain level of suspension of disbelief for a movie, watching wolves throwing themselves at a large group of armed men invites ridicule from anyone even tangentially connected to the reality of actual wild animals.

It's not just that the wolves attack the men, though that does stand out. The wolves in this film are an almost diabolical force, inexorable and omnipresent. They negotiate cliffs and rivers with ease, pursue the men for days on end with no food or sleep, and the snapshots of their behavior that we see resembles that of a biker gang more than a pack of animals. At one point, one of our heroes is surrounded by dozens of wolves, all of whom back away so that their leader, can finish the human personally in a mano-y-wolfo duel. This isn't an alpha wolf, this is Lord Humongous. Equally, scenes of synchronized funeral howling sound like the filmmakers are trying to find some kind of noble-savage parallel in the wolves. I have no doubt that wolves are smart enough to recognize and mourn their own dead. I doubt, however, that they are able to give choreographed eulogies in the style of Pericles.

Final thoughts:  I'm almost hesitant to cite all of the above as a negative however, because while the wolves are plainly not real wolves, the effect that the wolves have within the film really works. About halfway through the film, once I had gotten over my nitpicking objections and the cast had been thinned enough (spoilers!) so that I could keep track of them all properly, the movie began to gel for me in a way I'm not entirely sure I'm equipped to describe. Partly it's the effective, though sparse, use of back-story and character implication in the main and secondary characters, that seems to feed so well into the grim tone the film presents. Characters die in this film in horrible, uncompromising ways, yet the movie doesn't lapse into grimdark-ery, nor does one get the sense that the deaths are cynical calculations by filmmakers seeking shock value. As such, the movie succeeds where most of the awful 'cast slowly winnowed by evil monster' films (Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea, Event Horizon) all fail. The last third or so of the movie in particular is brutally, wonderfully effective, thanks in part to an inspired score, and in part to wonderful directorial choices, and the movie's ending, which I will not spoil here, cemented the film for me as a surely-guided work of tremendous skill.

Nothing, on paper, about this movie, points to excellence. I only saw it when I ran out of other films to see. And yet walking out, I knew I had seen a special film. I wasn't then, and still am not now entirely certain that I could articulate why, but this movie might well be the pinnacle of its ill-defined genre, and given that the trailers advertised nothing more than Liam Neeson punching wolves in the face, a most unexpected one.

Final Score:  8/10

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