By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
You are one of the few who survive a terrible accident that leaves you stranded in the midst of a vast tundra wilderness. You might be a few miles from civilization; you might be hundreds. Warmth is scarce; food even scarcer. To make your situation more perilous, a ferocious pack of territorial wolves threatens to take your life before the frost or starvation. There is only one certainty: if you stay where you are, you will die. What do you do? Do you give up and resign yourself to death? Do you look to the sky and call out to a God you may not necessarily believe in, begging for help? Or do you stare into the eyes of nature in all her fury while standing your ground, searching the farthest regions of your tattered body and soul for whatever might you can muster? These and other questions represent the mindset that defines The Grey – an aptly-titled survival thriller that explores how the uncertainty of a perilous situation affects those caught in its friction.
A solemn opening narration introduces the viewer to Ottway (Liam Neeson), a man who works for a large petroleum company in Alaska as a killer of wildlife – particularly the more dangerous animals, such as wolves, that would do harm to the other workers. More than that, Ottway is a man who has all but lost the will to live. He kneels in the icy darkness and places the muzzle of his rifle in his mouth, but he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger – at least not this time. One cannot help but wonder: how many times has he attempted this before? How many more will it take before he gives in to this grim desire?
When his flight home succumbs to turbulence and crashes in the middle of snow-covered nowhere, it seems strange at first that Ottway would take charge and lead the small group of seven survivors. However, it becomes apparent that despite his inner turmoil, Ottway is a man who refuses to die on any terms other than his own. He and the other men salvage what they can from the wreckage, including the wallets of the fallen (for their soon-to-be grieving families). One man finds a functional GPS watch, but there is no guarantee that it will do them any good. Still, it offers a small sense of security and the slightest glimmer of hope that salvation may arrive at any moment. Their sudden presence, however, has upset a local population of wolves, and it is quickly ascertained that they must remain on the move if they hope to survive. Ottway suggests heading for a forest off in the distance, and after brief resistance from a snide man named Diaz (Frank Grillo), the men all agree that it is a better course of action than sitting out in the open.
Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers’ script, which is based on Jeffers’ short story, Ghost Walker, offers little in the way of surprise throughout the film. This is particularly true of the moments when tragedy befalls any given character, which are almost always evident well in advance of their actual occurrence. Furthermore, many of the characters within the story are disposable, with only Ottway being developed to any significant degree. Even so, he remains something of an enigma. Diaz, and to a lesser extent Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) and Talget (Dermot Mulroney), are the only ones who receive much attention among the other survivors – just enough to where the viewer can sympathize with them. Still, while lacking in these areas, a hefty dose of adrenaline-charged suspense and thematic depth brings a definite balance to The Grey. The predictable scenes of intensity retain a steadfast dynamism, and the interactions among these men are endlessly enthralling.
Perhaps the most fascinating technical aspect of The Grey is the manner in which sound is used. Music is often soft and subtle when present, allowing the noise (or lack thereof) of the natural world to take center stage. Calamity is frequently heralded by brief moments of vociferous silence – an absolute calm before the tumultuous storm, so to speak. An early example of this is in the last few seconds before the plane crash, when a brief flashback envelopes the audience in serenity, only to have it ripped away in a thunderous jolt of chaos. Many of the later, more frantic scenes are accentuated by a pulsating orchestral score, but once the danger has passed, the temporary safety of the struggling survivors is reflected in the quiet and stillness around them. This is complemented by the cinematography and editing, with claustrophobic, erratic handheld shots and rapid cuts making it sometimes difficult to follow scenes of action. When the dust settles, though, the frame takes a step back, moving with more elegance and cutting with less frequency.
There are a few long takes, especially near the end of the film, in which the viewer is allowed to absorb the radiant beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. In the most striking of these scenes, the frame leisurely alternates between a few largely static shots, capturing the final fleeting moments of tranquility. The only sound, outside of the conversing survivors, is the gentle stream running next to them. A final cut back to the establishing shot of this scene delivers a melancholic farewell to the moment as the frame inches closer to its subject. These welcome pauses in the action are what elevate The Grey above other survival films, as they inspire contemplation not just among the characters on screen, but in the viewer as well. The film gradually builds up to a powerful ending that embodies its title and thematic undertone with poise and precision. For those venturing to see it, it is worth noting that there is a very brief epilogue after the credits. It is a curious addition that provides a simple yet inconclusive revelation – one that I found to be altogether unnecessary.
Since 2008, Liam Neeson seems to have become an even more prominent star, lending his talent to major roles in several films each year. While he has been around for decades, the spotlight is resting on him much more frequently today than it ever has – and with good reason. Neeson is an extraordinary actor and his role as Ottway strikes me as perhaps one of the finest performances of his sizeable career. The Grey marks his second collaboration with director Joe Carnahan, whose other endeavors include the poorly-received Smokin’ Aces (2006) and the dumb fun that was The A-Team (2010). Carnahan has shown with his latest film that he is capable of much more than his prior efforts suggest; one can only hope that the future of his career will yield experiences as refined and tantalizing as The Grey.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Author’s Note: The captions for the images construct a short poem mentioned in The Grey – one that is recited in the beginning, middle, and end of the film.
Director Joe Carnahan
Screenplay Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Producers Joe Carnahan, Jules Daly, Mickey Liddell, Ridley Scott
Director of Photography Masanobu Takayanagi
Editors Roger Barton, Jason Hellmann
Score Marc Streitenfeld
With Liam Neeson (Ottway), Frank Grillo (Diaz), Dallas Roberts (Hendrick), Dermot Mulroney (Talget), Joe Anderson (Flannery), Nonso Anozie (Burke), Ben Bray (Hernandez)