Into the maw of desperation
Joe Carnahan likes to make movies that never let up. He had fun with Smokin’ Aces and the A Team remake. Now he’s really serious again as he was in his soulful, grim debut feature, Narc. Narc was a bad cop story that went down some cruel roads hunting for a fix or for truth or for retribution. This time Carnahan, working with writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from a story by Jeffers, has picked a situation where the ceaseless intensity makes basic survival sense. Liam Neeson, wasted in the tongue-in-cheek A Team, this time is a tough, lonely specialist with far north oil riggers. This may be Neeson’s most physical role yet, and its intensity is enough to make viewers shut up and put down their popcorn. Carnahan’s last two movies were wild romps. This time he settles down to the seriousness of Narc, and there’s little doubt that Neeson gives his role an authority Bradley Cooper, how originally had the role, would not have managed. The supporting players likewise give their all. In this story, you can’t play it part-way.
Even the opening scene, which takes place in a bright worker’s bar, is totally in-your-face, careening back and forth. The images are big, they’re loud, and they’re in your face. They go from Neeson downing shots to Neeson in bed with a woman who has left him to Neeson shooting a wolf to Neeson writing a letter to the woman. It’s intense, bright, jiggly, and hand-held and the shifts give us a jolt that suggests we’re looking right into his character’s, Ottway’s, mind. Deftly, through images and a few words, it’s established where Ottway stands and what his specialty is. Then Ottway is in a plane full of oil riggers, the action on its way. The flight is doomed. The plane gets horribly knocked around, so much so it’s said the actors got sick playing it. And the booms are deafening.
After the crash, leaving a scattering of corpses and a few cracked hulks of plane, we are on a mountain with snow all around and roaring wind. And this was really shot in such a place (in British Columbia), because you couldn’t very well fake it. Ottway immediately becomes the alpha male leading a handful of oil workers after a crash in the Alaskan wilderness who find themselves surrounded by wolves.
If Narc didn’t quite reinvent the cop thriller genre, but came close, The Grey doesn’t reinvent the action horror genre, but comes close. Carnahan doesn’t let you think. He does not step back. The strategy is to look hard at the men — while they last, because there’s a steady attrition. Conveniently, a little too much so some will no doubt think, Ottway happens to be a wolf specialist. It has been his job to keep them away from far north drilling sites. So he lays out the situation, when wolves are observed observing them, and a night watch fails and a man is lost. They’ve had the misfortune to land inside the wolves’ territory, where animals that normally do not attack humans feel encroached upon, and therefore want to attack, to defend their safe zone. But, it’s about the men. The defining character is Diaz (a memorable Frank Grillo), an ex-con whose desperation leads him to insist he’s not afraid. The Grey is about the transformation of Diaz. And about Ottway’s “Once more into the fray” outllook.
The Grey is a boldly nihilistic movie that skillfully balances the real and the symbolic, external struggle and internal. Unlike the silly 3D sci-fi movieThe Darkest Hour, which kept vaporizing its young characters as aliens attacked, there’s no romantic couple to focus on as things draw to a close. Nor, for all their toughness, are these men ingenious survivors through strategic sacrifice like the protagonist of 127 Hours. The enemy is implacable, ceaseless, mythical. The 25-below setting with the howling winds is utterly real, but the dark hulking beasts with glowing eyes sometimes are like the haunting creature in Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee.
This is also a view of nature that Werner Herzog might find sympathetic. As Carnahan has said in an LA Times interview, this is a story in which the wolves win, but are simply part of nature that is beautiful but also “very hostile and unforgiving.”
The Grey has other good performances, by Joe Anderson as Flannery, a young wild upstart; Dermot Mulromey as Talgot and Dallas Roberts as Hendrick, two of the last survivors. The English Shakespearean actor Nonso Anosie is fine, if almost wasted (the altitude and the cold quickly get him) as Burke. James Badge Dale is Lewenden, Ben Bray is Hernandez. They’re unlikely cohorts, but circumstances make them into a team, and this is serious ensemble acting throughout. Diaz chafes at Ottway’s authority, but Ottway has both more knowledge and more courage than anybody else. And we find out what that means, just as each of the men who survive the crash finds out what he is made of.
The Grey isn’t subtle stuff. Carnahan is not content to use his authentic setting and good cast but avails himself constantly of crude genre methods. The camera can be irritating at times. The loud horror movie bangs are extremely manipulative, even if they work. It feels like some physical details of the survival situation are left out of the action in its relentless focus on Neeson and the snow and the wolves. But the incredibly harsh and yet glorious setting is an element that is not wasted. Even if you don’t quite approve of the methods used, it all works.
Carnahan does something here he didn’t often do in his other movies. Toward the end, he pauses and lets things become still, and the effect after all the intensity is electric: it’s one of the most thought-provoking moments, the one that made me ponder what I would do. And when you put yourself in their place, The Grey has done its job. I’ve been a fan of Carnahan since Narc, but I haven’t been happy with what he’s done since, till now. This is something new and there are some crude effects, but this has some of the original purity, honesty and machismo that made Narc special.
The Grey is out in cinemas 27th January 2012.
DIRECTOR: JOE CARNAHAN
WRITER: IAN MACKENZIE JEFFERS, JOE CARNAHAN
CAST: LIAM NEESON, FRANK GALLO, JO ANDERSON, DERMOT MULRONEY, DALLAS ROBERTS, NONSO ANOSIE, JAMES BADGE DALE, BEN GRAY
RUNTIME: 117 MINUTES