It is films like The Grey that affirm my decision to not watch movie trailers. While I heard general rumblings that it was supposed to be an action movie with Liam Neeson and wolves, I honestly didn’t know what to expect and found myself enjoying the film for what it was. From the grumblings in my theater, I imagine The Grey will be The American of 2012, a really good film, but one that most people dislike due to being led on by marketing that they were paying to watch another movie.
The Grey also reminds me of my first theatrical experience of 2011, the unfairly overlooked The Way Back. Both films chronicle a group of men as they try to survive the harshest natural conditions and explore some of the same questions about human nature and hope. For the few survivors of an Alaskan flight, the journey requires a bit more urgency when a territorial pack of wolves begin picking them off one by one.
Part of what makes The Grey memorable is how brutally honest the film can be. In an early scene Liam Neeson tells a wounded man that he’s dying and there’s nothing he can do, calmly talking him through his last moments in life. It’s a reminder that Liam Neeson earned his name on the strong performances in films like Schindler’s List, not the recent action badassery of Taken.
While The Grey gives Neeson those moments to assert prime alpha dominance, it’s not interested in and action orgy of man vs. wolf. The film is grounded in the methodical realism of simple survival. While I’m sure the scientists who study wolves would tell us the behavior of the wolves isn’t realistic, The Grey doesn’t use it as an excuse to enter b-movie territory.
Instead, the film is interested in delving into the way the various characters behave in these situations. Are people willing to stick together and join forces or do personal interests and a sense of survival perpetuate human behavior? One of the film’s subtler touches is how the mostly off-screen wolves also have something to add in contrast to the groups of the humans as far as how they interact and treat certain wolves.
Instead of coming up with one singular vision of how this all play out, the film uses the gradual growth of the characters to suggest different ideas about why humans persist in living and, furthermore, what might give someone the desire to no longer live. One could argue certain answers have more prevalence and weight than others, but to the film’s credit, it takes the time touches on a number of ideas and crafts some beautiful and touching emotional conclusions to cap of each idea.
One of the great delights of The Grey is the fantastic Cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi. Swaths of white landscapes are given the right amount of edge and dreamlike elements that seamlessly meld into the harsh, artic landscape. And the editing team throws it all together into this cycle of tedium survival punctuated by recurring daydreams.
For action starved audiences, The Grey leaves them as stranded and starved as the characters in the film. But what the film offers instead is a meaty and captivating cinematic experience. Yes, the device of the wolves offers up a spectacle that the film never fully delivers on, but the time invested with the characters and musing over life and death are much richer experiences than a visceral clash between man and nature.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing