Friday, February 3, 2012

The Grey

The Grey is one of those macho-adventure-gone-terribly-wrong movies that aims to give you a vicarious scare, shaking you out of your over-civilized stupor and awakening you to the need to live life to the fullest and then die like a man, unafraid and unburdened by regret.

It opens with promise as John Ottway (Liam Neeson), hired by an oil company to kill the wolves that would otherwise kill the oilfield workers, stops a wolf in its tracks with one expertly fired bullet and then helps it die, laying a compassionate hand on the animal’s flank as it breathes its last ragged breaths. The terse authority of Neeson’s manly voiceover and the wolf that doesn’t so much as snarl when Ottway strokes it make it clear that we’re in mythic/fairy tale territory, and it’s a solemn, contemplative region I’d have been glad to commit to if director-cowriter Joe Carnahan had just done the same.

But the next scene starts with Ottway striding into a bar that makes the Star Wars canteen scene look realistic, at least half the patrons engaged in full-on fist fights while the rest talk and drink as if blind and deaf to the mayhem. The rest of the film keeps up that same uneasy rhythm, seesawing between frontier philosophizing and near-cartoonish action as Ottway and a few of the men from the bar survive a horrific plane crash only to get systematically hunted down by a pack of anamatronic wolves.

The Grey puts its actors through the wringer to get realistic-looking deaths and near-deaths (it was so cold on the Alaska mountainside where they shot that the camera frequently froze up) only to sell them out with hokey dialogue, contrived conflicts, and wolves that feel more like fairy-tale bogeymen than actual beasts. The closer you can feel to the characters’ experience in stories like this, the better they work, as densely layered details provide an excruciating awareness of the dangers they face and the damage they’ve absorbed. But The Grey is frustratingly vague about the details of the dangers the men face, and quick to brush off the effects of their injuries and accidents.

Both Ottway and Diaz (Frank Grillo), an ex-con who challenges Ottway’s divine right to lead, appear to be pretty badly wounded at different times by the wolves, but their wounds never slow them down in the least afterward, or even weaken them a little with pain. And after spending several minutes in a river that must be blood-chillingly cold, Ottway climbs out and plops down on the bank seeming no worse for the wear physically, though he’s emotionally torn up by the death of his last remaining colleague.

There’s never a clear sense of the weapons the men have to defend themselves, either, though that sort of detail really matters in a tale of life and death. Knifes and a set of “bang sticks” Ottway creates out of shotgun bullets and sharpened sticks appear and disappear, often MIA when they would have been handiest. And we never either see the men drink water, in the long days before they find the river, or hear them express or show a need for it, although dehydration will kill you a lot faster than hunger.

The camera work further confuses the question of just what they’re up against, going so frantically wobbly and moving in so close when the men are in crisis that you have only the broadest sense of what’s going on. I was shocked when Diaz emerged victorious from his fight with a wolf, which I was sure had gotten the best of him.

And I’m sorry, but those wolves are just too weird to be taken seriously. Larger than life and almost entirely anamatronic (or “puppets” supplemented by “very, very little CGI,” as Neeson put it in an interview with Peter Travers), they look like the work of a bad taxidermist. Their eyes glow in the dark like those of the space aliens in Attack the Block and most of the time they seem about as real, functioning like the hound of the Baskervilles or one of those murderers in an Agatha Christie mystery, a mostly unseen opponent who picks off his victims, one by one, with supernatural efficiency.

Meanwhile, Carnahan keeps piling on the metaphors, from the poem Ottway keeps reciting about the need to “live and die on this day” to the gray hats and sweaters he wears to remind us that he’s the human equivalent of the alpha wolf of the title—as if the script’s ponderous parallels didn’t make that perfectly clear. As Diaz puts it, in a desperate shout-out to the waiting wolves: “You’re not the animals! We’re the animals!”

I hear you, man. I just don’t feel you.

Written for TimeOff

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