In the Bleak Midwinter: The Grey

March 6, 2012

It begins with a serene, but ominous, shot of the Alaskan mountains at dawn before harshly cutting to the hazy orange light of an oil refinery facility at night.  The man (technology) versus nature duality is established immediately, and knowing roughly what the film was about, I had a pretty good idea of where this was headed.  Ottway (Liam Neeson) begins reading what we soon find out to be a letter explaining the hellish circumstances of his job and the place he finds himself.  He marches about the facility with a gun, shooting infringing animals and protecting the workers, whom he describes as “ex-cons, fugitives, drifters…assholes”.  This view is confirmed as soon as he enters the facility’s bar, where we hear loud music and watch as a ludicrously cliché bar fight escalates into smashing tables.  Very quickly, the music fades and we see the soft-lit vision of a woman in bed with Ottway, and though well-shot, it feels even a little more cliché than the bar fight – to the cynical mind, at least.  We get an idea of just how much despair Ottway is in when he leaves the bar and puts a gun in his mouth, the would-be final act interrupted by the howling of wolves.  He eventually boards a plane bound for Anchorage with an assortment of ne’er-do-wells and roughnecks, and a fantastically tense plane crash scene later, he and the few survivors are stuck in the cold, snowy wilderness.

The early part of The Grey is as satisfying as the man-in-the-wilderness action movie gets, or at least is expected to be.  This was enough to give me hope that director Joe Carnahan was reining himself in a bit after the wildly tedious excesses of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team and returning to his more low-scale Narc roots, which had heralded the arrival of a promising new talent all those years.  Seeing the trailers didn’t bolster my enthusiasm for his new picture, especially as it was going to be the now-annual Liam Neeson January gruff-man-thriller.  Soon after the crash, however, there is an extended scene where Ottway calms a grievously injured man down and talks him into accepting his death in such a surprisingly moving way that The Grey took an altogether different tone.  Yes, the film is actually pretty thrilling and viscerally gruesome in turns, but there was another dimension beyond the obvious man-overcomes-nature line you might expect it to have taken.  It becomes, of all things, a moving existential drama about grief and the acceptance of death.

Before all that, however, there is the matter of the tension, which is taut and glorious for most of the time it really needs to be.  I will forgive the occasional dalliance in too-chaotic visual style because so many of the sequences with the wolves work incredibly well.  There’s a fantastically creepy visual of wolf eyes appearing out of the black void that works far better than it should thanks to the score and the judicious editing between them and the humans, mortified but doing their best to stare them down.  Even better is the hopeless race through a grey, snowy open field when the survivors realize one of their numbers is being attacked.  The silhouettes of the wolves and the helpless body writhing beneath their teeth in the distance are seen as Ottway attempts to get them away, all the while hampered by the deep snow the camera keeps panning down to as his legs sink further and further with each forceful step.  There’s great tension, but it is often a bleak tension, designed to elicit the bitter futility the characters feel washing over them.

That futility rises and falls throughout the film, supplanted on occasion with hope and even a small moment of triumph.  The traditional pace breather, “getting-to-know-you” sequence is not nearly as trite and perfunctory as these things usually are.  Neeson’s soulful grizzle serves him well as he recalls a story – replete with those beautifully shot flashbacks – of his father and the poem he wrote, while the others discuss the possible cosmic meaning to their survival of the plane crash and their subsequent, seemingly paradoxical, struggles against the wolves.  If all of the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out, they do have their own distinct points of view.  The question of god and purpose is always drifting through the air.

The final act moves into moments of full-on thoughtful beauty, as for instance, an injured character can run no further and asks to be left by a log to revel in the beauty of nature while he waits for his inevitable fate.  The idea of the graceful acceptance of death runs through the film, and becomes even more pronounced as it moves forward, with each passing death.  From the despair that death causes to the difficulties of hanging onto life and finally to the acceptance of mortality and the self, The Grey’s structure reflects the emotional journey of Ottway and, to an extent, certain of those in his party.  As the low-point kicks in and Ottway bellows at the sky for a sign from a god that does not exist, the finale becomes increasingly powerful in a way that is entirely unexpected given the first five minutes.  Credit for this, and the oddly optimistic and beautiful final moments, must be given to Carnahan for creating an atmosphere conducive to something that is so potentially corny that it could very well have elicited stifled laughs from the audience.

Even more so, perhaps, Neeson deserves his due.  This is, in many ways, his vehicle, and he infuses with a grimly beautiful believability that sells the emotion.  It’s not just about masculinity or survival, it’s about a deeper understanding of the self and the strength and peace that can be drawn from it.  That man vs. nature duality teased in the opening minutes falls away completely, as if the film is repudiating the notion of man’s dominance over nature that we just blithely accept (and expect) in a Judeo-Christian society.  Nor does it contend that man is one with nature, in a sense, but rather The Grey espouses the belief that man’s faith in the self can overcome, if not quite physically defeat, the primal forces of the wild.  The audacious finale, incorporating all the heart-tugging beauty of those flashbacks and even the recitation of the father’s poem, reaches a kind of sublime beauty of graceful acceptance one rarely sees in this kind of genre fare.  There is little more thrilling for this moviegoer than a genuinely fantastic surprise, and The Grey offered it and much more.  It’s the fucking den alright.

-M

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