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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Grey

THE GREY (Three Stars)

U.S. Joe Carnahan, 2012

It’s really fitting that this movie is called The Grey, because grey it certainly is—and cold, and bitter, and sunless, a suspense picture full of existential terror, untamed nature, overwhelming anxiety and relentless death, always a step or two behind. And wolves. And Liam Neeson.

What is The Grey about? Macho stuff. The all-male group. Fear. Death. Survival. What we like to call manhood. In the film, seven or eight men (the number keeps dwindling as the story goes on)—workers in an Alaskan oil refinery that seems to run on booze and machismo—survive a skull-shatteringly convincing plane crash in the wilderness, only to find themselves scrambling to survive. They’re in a fix: lost in a perilous land without traces of other humanity—trapped in a deadly realm of terrifying mountains and huge grey forests and vast chasms waiting to swallow you up, a world mantled with snow and ice and vibrating with an intense, bone-stripping chill you can practically feel as you watch it.

It’s bad enough to crash-land in a frozen wilderness, even one photographed this well by Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior). But worse awaits them. As the seven try to find their way back to civilization, they’re hunted by a pack of huge, ravenous, but scarily patient wolves, picking them off one by one. These beasts’ eyes glow in the dark. They howl. They are huge: some of them CGI, some animatronic, some actual wolves. They are always there, tracking, watching, waiting to kill and feed and send one more cast member to oblivion.

Do real wolves act like this? Maybe not, according to Carroll Ballard’s classic pro-wildlife adventure Never Cry Wolf. But this movie follows the logic of Jaws, the logic of horror. The lost oil riggers have one thing going for them: Neeson, an unstoppable force in that previous action blockbuster, Taken (2008), here plays John Ottway, a wolf-hunter hired by the oil company to shoot any wolves that menace the oil workers.

A guy suicidal unhappy about losing his wife, but an ace wolf killer who knows his prey, Ottway just happens to be on the downed plane. So naturally he becomes head guy for the beleaguered survivors: a desperate bunch that includes Frank Grillo as brutal ex-con Diaz, Dermot Mulroney as the bearded intellectual Talget, Nonso Anozie as the sturdy black man Burke, and Dallas Roberts as the hapless Hendrick.

None of them, we feel, would last a day without Ottway. But he’s no conventional movie action hero. Eyes quizzical and hurt-looking, voice a low, measured, all-knowing lyrical Irish growl, Ottway dispenses wolf lore (keep to the trees, he says), shoots, helps his men live and also helps them die, all the while trying to outmaneuver the terror that pursues them.

You may wonder why these wolves don’t descend on the men and rip them apart,  despite the sometimes reassuring presence of Liam Neeson. The answer is simple. Though the movie often feels real—and though director co-writer Joe Carnahan (working with co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, adapting Jeffers’ own short story “Ghost Walker“) has made it into an absolutely terrific suspense show—it’s as real, some of the time, as our worst nightmares.

That’s why it was clever to cast Neeson as Ottway, after two recent suspense crime thrillers box office blockbusters, Taken and 2011’s Unknown, in which he played almost ridiculously invulnerable heroes, supermen who could seemingly take down anyone, brave any peril, vanquish any gang, kick any ass. Those two movies, though they were smash hits, struck me as ridiculous, almost laughably ubermensch-ish.

Neeson, who’s had a largely laudable acting career ever since he and Helen Mirren made Excalibur in 1981 for John Boorman, began making super-popular violent trash with Taken and Unknown, and he made it work partly because he was so obviously superior to it, because, though he had the leonine, muscular looks of an action hero fit ready for anything, he also had that extra element of brains and sensitivity, something that played against the nonsensical plots. The story of The Grey is more believable and interesting—or at least Carnahan and Jeffers make it more believable and interesting. The story is semi-pure Jack London and the dialogue, which tends toward Ernest HemingwayJames Dickey macho philosophy, is more engaging than anything you’ll find in Taken, or in Carnahan’s and Neeson’s last joint venture, the ludicrous TV knockoff, The A-Team. (We’ll forgive them, as long as they can follow up with a movie as good as The Grey.)

The movie, at its best, reminds you of such classics as Boorman’s and Dickey’s Deliverance, or Lev Kuleshov‘s London-derived Russian silent Outside the Law, or even a flawed but exciting show like Lee Tamahori’s and David Mamet’s The Edge, The Grey makes the wilderness a terrifying place. And it works, sometimes smashingly.

Movies that are supposed to scare the hell out of you by evoking the terrors of the damned, of Hell and all its demons, usually do little for me, no matter how many devils they pull out of their hats. But The Grey is a genuinely scary movie—whether it’s swinging us over that chasm (a really terrifying scene), or crashing that plane or siccing the wolves on the crash survivors. And by the way, as many have already suggested, you shouldn’t walk out before the end of this film’s final credits. The movie has a last zinger for you.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Grey”

  1. Breedlove says:

    Just saw it and loved it. Great movie. Love Neeson as an action hero but he gives a real performance here as well, and a damn fine one. The final coda after the credits…I was distracted by obnoxious ushers cleaning and making noise…it was just a quick shot that lasted a couple seconds…any thoughts on what it meant exactly? SPOILER was it just showing that Neeson survived that final showdown? It happened so fast I wasn’t sure what it meant.

  2. thespirithunter says:

    Loved the film. Hated the audience I was with. As soon as the movie went to black pre-credits, there were a lot of boos and a generous amount of vitriol delivered to the screen, apparently by movie patrons who are sick of rushed endings a la Devil Inside (which I have not seen).

    But people, what on Earth do you think will happen to Neeson’s character when the screen fades out? Are we really so stubbornly obtuse as to think a man who has SPOILER —- walked for miles through the freezing cold with wet clothes on from a dip in the river just prior, after surviving a plane wreck and is now on his own—-has any kind of chance in a wolf’s den against 100 of these things? Do you honestly think that he will slaughter them all and make it home to a life without his beloved wife?

    I applaud Carnahan for ending it where he did. I suspect the post-credit zinger was tacked on to try and give it some air of triumph by exec producers worried about stupid audiences yelling and throwing popcorn at a screen without understanding the internal logic of the setup. Bravo Carnahan! Boo, intelligence-starved theater audiences!


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon