The Grey

The new year always brings a lot of new opportunity.  With it comes the chance for a fresh start, an excuse to lose twenty pounds, or to finally follow up on that hobby you intended to start when you bought that model airplane three years ago.  But for me, the new year offers a completely different promise.  Namely, a new movie about Liam Neeson kicking ass and taking names.  Granted, it doesn’t happen every year, but in my mind, January has become synonymous with Neeson in a grand struggle to retake the things stolen from him by agents of evil.  A few years ago, we were given Taken, a movie about Liam Neeson trying to take back his kidnapped daughter.  Last year it was Unknown, a film featuring Liam Neeson struggling to recapture his identity after it was taken from him following a car crash.  All his films seem to have a similar theme running though them and while his newest film, The Grey, doesn’t deviate from that theme, it definitely mixes it up.

At a pumping station bar in the arctic circle populated by “men unfit for mankind” we meet John Ottway (Neeson), a sniper hired to shoot the wolves that move in on the drillers working the fields.  Most of the men who work in this frozen wasteland are desperate for the money but it is clear from the start that Ottway chose it as a way to imprison himself for the life he has lived.  He drinks quietly, ignoring the revelry of his coworkers and the brawls that fill the cold bar.  So its of little surprise that he has no interest in carrying on conversations with a group of coworkers he meets the next day on a plane bound Anchorage Alaska.  While the rest of the men joke amongst themselves, Ottway sits quietly thinking about his estranged wife until slowly nodding off to sleep.

When he wakes up, Ottway finds himself covered in snow, laying amongst the shattered rubble of the airplane.  Ottway and a small group of survivors begin planning for survival until rescue comes.  As day turns to night however, the group realizes that they have problems bigger then the cold.  Namely, a pack of arctic wolves have caught their scent and begin slowly picking them off one by one.  As the most experienced of the group Ottway takes charge, ordering the men to make their way to the tree line of a local forest.  With no real weapons, very little food and inferior numbers, the men set off in search of survival all the while keenly aware of the glowing eyes surrounding them at night, just waiting for an opening.

As these men fight their way through the frozen tundra sharing stories and trying to keep each others spirits up, you come to care for them all making the inevitability of their fate even more painful.  The men have reason and logic, but the wolves have superior numbers, patience and the home field advantage.  They encircle the camp nightly, bravely moving in to display their dominance and break the spirits of these lone survivors.  The Alpha of the pack displays almost a supernatural understanding of Ottway as he steps into the light and stares him in the eye as if to say “you know you can’t win this fight,” making the howls in the night even more terrifying for the small group of men.  As numbers dwindle, a feeling of dread creeps in and you begin to feel the reality of their struggle set in.

One of the most impressive elements of this movie is that each of the men has a distinct personality.  Usually in survival movies, you get to know two characters really well, one being the leader, the other being the man who will no doubt die but add some emotional heft in doing so.  In The Grey, writer/director Joe Carnahan and his cowriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers allowed each character to be an individual.  While we get more of Ottway then any of the others (this is a Liam Neeson movie after all), each man has a story and a personality that acts as both a burden and a gift to those around him.  Diaz (Frank Grillo) is a tough guy, Talget (Dermot Mulroney) a proud father.  Hernandez (Ben Bray) is level-headed, Burke (Nonso Anozie) is a gentle giant and Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) is a thoughtful man who doesn’t say much, but witnesses all.  The individual personalities of each men makes the struggle that much more painful and ultimately, more rewarding.

Carnahan’s direction is flawless, reminding me much more of last year’s Hanna then his previous cinematic effort, The A*Team.  The film is beautiful and haunting in it’s visual design with the white frames of the landscape filling the screen, making the occasional splashes of blood sting your eyes that much more.  The pacing is great as well, and The Grey will keep you on the edge of your seat wondering if a joyful moment can be enjoyed or if it’s foreshadowing another attack. Marc Streitenfeld‘s stark score keeps you alert without being intrusive and with great performances from the entire cast, The Grey is a great achievement in storytelling.

The Grey is a brilliant film with a painfully logical conclusion and is, undoubtedly, the first great movie of 2012.  In the final moments of the film as Ottway prepares to stand and fight, he recalls a poem his father wrote that perfectly captures the cinematic experience you have just witnessed.

Once more into the fray,
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know,
Live and die on this day,
Live and die on this day.

RATING:  9/10

P.S. Stick around through the credits.  Though you are only rewarded with a single two second shot, that shot has a lot to say.

~ by Andrew Craig on January 29, 2012.

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