Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Grey Movie Review


As our country passes through dark economic times at the same time we’re trying to extricate ourselves from two unwinnable wars, I keep looking for the films that will defined these times. As Vietnam drew to a close, the 70s had its fair share of popular entertainments that reveled in depicting the deep moral failings of those whom we regard as incorruptible. I’m thinking of films like All the President’s Men, The French Connection and Dirty Harry to name a few. The Grey is the type of movie that might have copped out in favor of the happy ending if it had been made in 90s economic boom. As it is, it’s a dark tale with existential underpinnings.

Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, an Irishman working in Alaska for an oil company that pays him to kill wolves in the area to protect the drilling team. He executes his job with a scope rifle from great distance, never having to get up close and personal with his targets. Traveling back to civilization with the ragtag team of drillers, their plane crashes in the wilderness and John finds himself one of seven or eight survivors.

From this point I’m reminded of Jack London’s stories as the men face a struggle against nature. in addition to the tremendous cold and severe weather and lack of food, they come face to face with a pack of wolves. The animals and the elements take their lives one at a time until their numbers dwindle to nothing. In that way it’s set up like a slasher movie, but The Grey, adapted by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and director Joe Carnahan from a Jeffers short story, makes an attempt to take on a bit more than creatively knocking off a cast of characters.

However, the film holds to the standard convention of having each character represent a particular archetype. Ottway is stoic and knowledgeable. He takes command and curtly explains how best to survive, but he’s concealing a deep sadness over the loss of his wife. The other notables are Diaz (Frank Grillo) as the antagonist who doesn’t want to go along with the crowd; Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the unassuming father just hoping to get back to his daughter; Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) is the believer in the group; Flannery (Joe Anderson) is the loudmouth. Two other characters don’t resonate enough to establish their personalities very strongly.

I really like the simplicity of the story and Carnahan does well to keep the film tight. After the plane goes down, the setting is entirely the wilderness. A lesser movie might have found it necessary to cut away to family and friends and a desperate search. Not in this case. We spend the entire time with these men who are freezing, hungry and scared. It puts you right in there with them, rarely giving you a moment to breathe because they and we never know where the wolves are.

But Carnahan and Jeffers do find moments to let some air in with philosophical and theological conversations between the men. Most of these are as effective as this kind of dialogue can be. We’ve heard this stuff before: one guy believes God is watching over them while another thinks they’re on their own. The story becomes one of lost faith on the part of Ottway, with an attempt to regain it, but in a final act of desperation he fails to understand true faith.

Where they veer off course a little is not so much in the philosophizing, but in the silly way they ascribe purpose or intent to nature. Nature is indifferent. That’s what makes a classic man versus nature story so compelling. You have an entity that strives for survival up against elements that exist without any eye toward a goal. Wolves have a goal just as the men do. They want to survive. If that means protecting their territory or hunting the men for food, that’s what they’ll do. What I didn’t care for was the way Ottway anthropomorphizes the animals, speculating that they are sizing up the men at various points. When a weaker wolf attacks their encampment, he claims the Alpha male sent in a weaker Omega.

In my head I kept coming back to Jack London’s wonderful short story, “To Build a Fire,” about a man trying to survive on his own in the Alaskan winter. All he needs to do is get a fire going to keep warm before his wet feet become frost-bitten. London understood the natural elements of that land better than any artist. True to nature’s indifference, when the man freezes to death in that story, the dog simply trots off, his demeanor absent any shred of sentimentality. It’s that keen understanding of the world that The Grey lacks even as it remains an occasionally nail-biting experience.

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