REVIEW: The Grey Is a Howl of Existential Pain, with Some Action Thrown In
Wolves, like most animals, know a lot of things that humans don’t. When bad white men move onto their turf to do bad white-man stuff – like drilling for oil – they instinctively know something’s amiss in the balance of nature, and damned if they’re going to just sit back in their dens and fuhgeddaboutit. In The Grey, wolves unleash their fury at mankind in a bloody yet tasteful flurry of stamping paws and gnashing teeth; mankind fights back as best he can, which in this particular case, is not very well.
What’s not surprising about the picture, considering it was directed by the guy behind movies like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, Joe Carnahan, is how absurdly macho some of the dialogue is. (My favorite line, uttered by a character after he’s witnessed one too many wolf-inflicted deaths: “This is fuck city, population 5 and dwindling.”) What is surprising is how poetic the movie is, partly thanks to its high-lonesome sound design and the desolate beauty of its visuals, but mostly because of its star, Liam Neeson. He knows what the wolves know, only he’s not telling.
Neeson plays Ottway, a sharpshooter stationed at an Alaskan oil refinery, where hard men work even harder shifts, toiling for five weeks straight before being freed for two weeks of vacation. It’s Ottway’s job to pick off the bears and other assorted critters who might prey on the men as they work. He’s good with a gun for sure, but he also takes the killing part of his job seriously: In the movie’s early moments, he approaches a wolf he’s just shot -- it lies in the snow, bloodied but hardly drained of its dignity -- and places his hand on the animal’s flank as it draws its last breath. Ottway may be good at his job, but he doesn’t derive any pleasure from it. And we learn early on that something is deeply amiss in his personal life as well: We see him scratching out a desperate letter to a loved one -- with a fountain pen, no less -- even though he knows it can’t possibly bring her back.
We also see him draw back from the brink of taking his own life: Ottway is one unhappy guy, but what happens shortly thereafter galvanizes him. He and a bunch of the oil workers board a plane bound for civilization. The craft goes down somewhere in sub-Arctic territory. A handful survive the crash -- they’re played largely by a cache of actors you’ve vaguely heard of, people like Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale and Frank Grillo; Dermot Mulroney, mildly disguised by thick glasses and unruly hair, is the one immediately familiar face. But it’s only after the group has managed to pull themselves from the wreckage and patch themselves up that they face the real threat: A group of wolves who stalk them with an almost mystical zeal, not for food but seemingly for sport. Or revenge.
Ottway, being the guy who knows all about wolves, urges the men -- whose numbers, predictably, dwindle as the story tramps through the snow to its half-rousing, half-bittersweet ending -- to fight back, using home-made weapons like improvised bang sticks fashioned from sharpened sticks and bullet casings. (If you’re like me, you probably have no idea what a bang stick is; but if you watch The Grey, you will.) Carnahan has fashioned a movie that’s largely an endurance test. Some pretty awful things happen to some characters we come to care about, and the picture carries you along on a wave of vaguely sickening feelings: You keep watching, wondering what bad thing is going to happen next. But The Grey also offers plenty of moments of grace and beauty, moments that are less pure hokum than pure movie. Just before that plane goes down, as the sleepy travelers doze, we sense that the cabin has suddenly become very cold: The men’s breath hangs in the air, taking wispy forms that just might be -- wolf ghosts? Later, after the men have trekked across a broad swath of blank, snowy terrain toward a stand of trees, they peer into the darkness of the forest only to see multiple sets of glowing pin-dot eyes staring back at them. The Grey is all about man vs. nature, and how.
There’s also some man vs. man and a lot of man vs. himself mixed in there too. You can bet that the most obnoxious crash survivor -- the one every other character not-so-secretly despises, and the one you really wish had died early on, played with cranky effectiveness by Grillo -- will redeem himself spectacularly by the end. There are many instances, perhaps too many, of men speaking sentimentally of their families, or of their lack of family. But the picture -- which was written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, from a short story by Jeffers -- keeps working, almost in spite of itself, partly because of its despairing, gorgeous visuals. The picture was shot on location in damn-cold British Columbia. (The cinematographer is Masanobu Takayanagi, whose credits include the recent underground stealth hit Warrior.) And the very quietness of the movie is a big selling point. There’s gore here, but it’s the artful sort, consisting of things like tableaus of half-glimpsed bloody carcasses nestled in sparkly-white snow. And Carnahan is smart enough to know what not to show. When those largely unseen wolves start hooting and moaning, the sound goes right through you: It’s a howl of existential pain from nature’s peanut gallery.
No wonder Ottway feels that pain so keenly. And yet Neeson keeps him from becoming a caricature. Even though the role demands a significant amount of action and physical derring-do, most of Ottway’s struggle is happening inside, and Neeson reveals his character’s suffering gradually, in small bursts of light and shadow. I can’t imagine what it’s like for an actor who has only recently lost his wife to play a man who feels kinship, anger and exquisite loneliness in the company of wolves. Whatever Neeson’s private thoughts and feelings are, you can’t escape the suspicion that he’s channeling them here, placing them before us in muted, unspoken form. It doesn’t hurt that Neeson looks more handsome and noble than ever, particularly with that defiantly regal nose: The Romans, supposedly, never took up residence in Ireland. So how, then, did Neeson’s profile find its way onto their coins?
You can take or leave most of the dialogue The Grey requires Neeson to utter, perfunctory stuff along the lines of “They weren’t eating him –- they were killing him” and “We’re a threat –- we don’t belong here.” But it’s hard to ignore the shifts of dusky feeling that play across his face. It’s as if those vaporous wolf ghosts have taken up residence there, in a place where macho posturing is only a small part of what the movies are about.