Sunday, February 19, 2012
"The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive." – Pvt. Joker, Full Metal Jacket
One of a handful of very satisfying movies to be released in the first several weeks of 2012, The Grey caught me completely by surprise. Liam Neeson's last few star vehicles (Taken, Unknown) have rebranded him as a cartoonish he-man. That image, along with the pumped up ads for The Grey, had prepared me for an all-out brawl between man and beast, something along the lines of the final scene of Legends of the Fall (in which Brat Pitt wrestles a grizzly) stretched to feature length. What I got instead was a remarkably contemplative action picture in which death is given its full weight, one that invites comparisons to John Boorman's classic Deliverance. Not bad for a movie directed by Joe Carnahan, a filmmaker I'd pretty much written off after his and Neeson's disastrous screen update of The A-Team.
The Grey is structured like a teen slasher flick, in which the characters are picked off one by one by a merciless foe. It's about a group of oil rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wild. Soon after, the men discover they've touched down in the hunting territory of a pack of gray wolves. These early scenes do an efficient job of explaining why the men are being hunted (they've crashed near the wolves' den), and of setting up the expertise of its main character, Ottway (Neeson), whose job it is to kill wolves that threaten the safety of the drilling team.
Deliverance and The Grey both tell stories of modern men tested in the woods by pre-civilized forces. They also share a subtext: payback for environmental atrocities. Boorman's city slickers go on vacation to enjoy the "last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked-up river in the South," and end up encountering the mountain men whose home is being taken over by a power company. Similarly, the oil rig workers in The Grey are confronted by wild animals whose habitat is being threatened by the plundering of natural resources. What's different about the films is that, unlike Boorman's ill-fated vacationers, Ottway and company don't go from "soft" city men to backwoods survivalists; no, their main transformation is to go from breathing to not breathing.
I can think of few other films that depict death in such an unsettling, realistic fashion. Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing comes to mind, as does the powerful, bizarre, stand-alone scene in David Lynch's Wild at Heart in which Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage) witness the final few moments of a teenage car crash victim. ("She died right in front of us, Sailor.") All of the killings in The Grey are shocking because these men are strong enough to work in the harshest conditions imaginable, and we're seeing their lives cut off in midstream. Two killings that stand out for me: the astonishing scene after the plane crashes where Ottway talks a man through his own death, and a drowning late in the film.
The latter scene is especially disturbing because the victim is fighting hard for his life, screaming at the top of his lungs underwater. It hits us really hard because we understand exactly what he's fighting for. For such a bleak film (one that takes an arguably atheistic stance on whether we're alone in the universe), The Grey places a very high value on family and emotional ties. These are what keep you tethered to the world. Thoughts of loved ones give a majority of these men the will to survive, and provide a final moment of grace and comfort for some of them before the inevitable.
The effects in the wolf attack scenes aren't always convincing, but you never doubt the degree to which the men are in danger. Carnahan and his cinematographer, Masanobu Takanayagi, capture the harsh beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. A post-credits scene is unnecessary, adding nothing more than a tally of the final body count.