in Film, Horror, Reviews

MOVIE REVIEW | The Grey Image

The GreyWhen an airplane bound for Anchorage, having departed from a remote oil refinery, crashes into a frigid Alaskan mountain removed from any sign of civilization, the handful of survivors must band together against the cold and the pack of wolves following them. Such is the scenario in director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. If you think you have seen it before, you probably have, but probably not like this. The title is fitting both as a description of the bleak snowscape in which the actors find themselves as well as the mood that informs the work, that of an agnostic’s uncertainty and despair.

I do not expect to see another movie this good until December, unless recent trends are bucked. It is far more than a harrowing survival tale. It is also a very thoughtful piece, something made not by a technician, but by an artist. To be perfectly honest, after seeing Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, I did not think that Joe Carnahan had it in him. But he has crafted a very effective bit of cinema, something that can appeal to someone looking for some subdued tension and sudden thrills as well as a movie-goer more sensitive to metaphors and in a more introspective mood.

The opening shots of the movie are arresting in their austerity, atmospheric in their composition. It quickly becomes apparent that time will be spent creating a character to care about. Liam Neeson, playing John Ottway, is a man who is burnt out on life, who has, in some undefined way, lost the woman he loves. He puts the business end of a loaded rifle in his mouth, and only the howling of a wolf distracts him from his suicide. He misses the window of opportunity, the moment of resolve. I was intrigued, but it was not until after the plane crash that I was sold.

Eight survive the disaster, but one of them is injured and bleeding profusely. He calls out for help, close to panic and yet in disbelief that his end is near. Ottway approaches him and tells him with a direct yet gentle sincerity that he is going to die. He tells him to be calm, that death will slip gently over him. He tells him to think about the people he loves in his last moments, of the good times, and to accept what is happening.

We have seen a thousand scenes of wounded men who know they are about to die; I have never seen something quite like this one. It convinced me of the merit of the film, but I did not realize just how important that scene was to the movie’s theme until later.

There is very little complexity to the plot. The Grey has only a few linear episodes, all straightforward with no intricacy of subplots and turning points. But each episode is staged masterfully, often in the dark, and sound is used as effectively as I have ever experienced it. After the men leave the wreckage, they make for a forest in the distance and build a campfire upon arriving. In the glacial dark of night they huddle around its warmth, and they hear the creaks and taps and groans of the forest around them. Once in a while they hear the howls of wolves, or see their eyes — and nothing else — reflecting back the glow of the firelight. At one point, the wolves seem to go into an unseen frenzy. Ottway tells the others that a rival wolf has challenged the alpha wolf and been put down. This anticipates what will happen among the humans only moments later.

Only the eyes
Only the eyes

It comes out that Ottway, and one other, are agnostics. While some of the men see divine providence in their rescue, and cannot believe that they would survive the crash only to die in the jaws of wolves, Mr. Neeson’s character sees only chance and an indifferent universe. Later on, Ottway calls to the impenetrable gray of the sky above, telling God that now would be a good time to do something. He will, he declares, believe in him until the day he dies if only he will be moved to help him now. The sky, of course, does not respond, and Ottway mutters, “I’ll do it myself.”

That is the movie’s theme in a nutshell. The sky evinces no sign of caring or even being able to hear; anything that needs doing we must do ourselves and always we live with the uncertainty of not knowing what lies ahead. Enjoy what you have while you have it; this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

It will come as no surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with modern cinema that The Grey, so intent on its metaphors and the personalities of its characters, yet has action more gripping than any thousand summer blockbusters put together. Nothing feels rehearsed, everything is realistic, the laws of physics are obeyed, we are invested in the characters and the camera shoves us right into the thick of the action. That a movie only secondarily concerned with thrills should arouse so much more than a legion of movies concerned with nothing but should serve as a wake-up call to movie makers.

As must happen with every film, the credits finally roll, this time on an ending as wholly appropriate to this particular picture as one could hope. The Grey will not revolutionize cinema, nor will it take a place in the pantheon of masterpieces. But it is a fine movie, and perhaps marks a turnaround in a director as pleasant and unexpected as happened with Michael Mann when he, against the current of his career, suddenly gave us The Last of the Mohicans. It would be unduly optimistic to think that a suitable replacement for The Grey will be forthcoming when its run in theaters ends, and even if there is, there are some shots in the movie that demand a big screen to fully appreciate. I recommend the film without reservations, and that the reader not wait for the DVD.

4 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Matthew Bruce Alexander Staff Writer

Matthew is a libertarian living in central Ohio. A graduate of Ohio State University, he majored in Spanish and has published a work of libertarian science-fiction called Wĭthûr Wē.

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