This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout December, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘winter’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Joe Carnahan’s under-appreciated survival thriller The Grey.
By the time Joe Carnahan’s The Grey was released theatrically in 2012, its star Liam Neeson had seemingly devolved from being an award-winning dramatic actor to a geri-action star in search of the next dunderheaded blockbuster.
Indeed, Neeson had starred in Carnahan’s previous movie, an ill-advised big screen take on 80s TV show The A-Team (2010) wherein the Irishman stepped into George Peppard’s shoes to play the cigar-chewing Hannibal Smith.
Nothing, therefore, suggested their follow-up to The A-Team was going to be anything but more of the same. However, The Grey was as surprising as it was riveting when it arrived and gave Neeson a role he could finally dig his teeth into whilst still playing the sombre man of action he had become synonymous with.
Set in the harsh wintry environs of Alaska, John Ottway (Neeson) is employed to shoot wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. A flight home goes horribly awry when bad weather brings the plane down and Ottway and a handful of others must do what they can to survive not only the intense cold, but also the equally unforgiving wolves that see the group as their next meal (“they’re man eaters; they don’t give a shit about berries and shrubs”).
When we first meet Ottway, he is a broken, suicidal figure who has taken a job “at the end of the world” as he sees himself as “unfit for mankind”. The film cuts between flashbacks of Ottway and his wife in happier times and the Irishman penning a suicide note to her before intending to kill himself with his own rifle. That he stops himself from going through with it after hearing the howl of a wolf is an intriguing precursor of what’s to come.
In spite of his suicidal ideation, it’s notable that Ottway’s first instinct is survival when the plane starts going down in what is a truly terrifying sequence.
The very real threat posed by the wolves is laid bare in chilling fashion throughout, not least of which during one particularly unnerving night scene when the survivors first encounter their nemesis. At first one wolf can be seen in the firelight, but soon multiple sets of glowing eyes are visible; accompanied by increasingly hostile snarling.
The fellow survivors are a disparate bunch, as you might expect from a film such as this, but the talented cast of ‘those guys’ such as Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney make the most of Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers’ (on whose book this is based) egalitarian script and form a bond that is both believable and affecting as one by one they perish.
There’s a nice parallel between the survivors and the wolves as Ottway stamps his authority by putting down a challenge by Frank Grillo’s hot-blooded oil worker shortly after explaining how the ‘alpha’ wolf ruthlessly deals with pretenders to his rule.
While there is no shortage of action, in particular a buttock-clenching scene in which one of the remaining survivors must first fling himself from a cliff edge onto a nearby tree to enable the others to traverse the canyon by a very precarious rope, The Grey is also notable for its contemplative and philosophical approach.
A poem written by Ottway’s father is uttered throughout and as he faces what looks to be his final encounter, shards of glass and a dagger taped to his hands, its words gather new meaning: “Once more into the fray… into the last good fight I’ll ever know; live and die on this day… live and die on this day…”.
Ottway’s visions of his wife also reveal themselves as something more, while a scene late on – brilliantly played by Neeson (the director had apparently urged the actor to channel his grief over the death of his wife Natasha Richardson) – finds the character desperately calling for divine intervention and, after none is forthcoming, he says resignedly: “F*** it, I’ll do it myself.”
Dissenting critics have mystifyingly scalded the film for its metaphysical leanings, claiming them to be unnecessary – which is to miss the point entirely. These are presumably the same reviewers who bemoan the lack of depth in today’s bigger budget fare. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, was deeply affected by what he saw, so much so that he had to walk out of another screening (something he had never done before).
Right until its shattering cut to black, The Grey digs its fangs into you while also packing an emotional wallop that’s as sublime as the wild Alaskan landscape.
Oh, you’ve done this one justice, Mark. Well done, my friend.
p.s., I’m not afraid to admit it, but Carnahan’s THE A-TEAM has grown on me with repeat viewings.
Well, I’ve only seen The A-Team once but that was enough for me I’m afraid! Thanks for those kind words mate; was pretty pleased with this review.
Well, I’ve only seen The A-Team the once but that was enough for me I’m afraid!
Thanks for those kind words; pretty happy with how this review came out.
Check back with me on Friday…I can say no more. 😉
It took sooo much courage for me to watch this, and even then I needed to convince my friends to play a board game with me, with the movie just in the background. I watched it out of my peripheral vision.
Ha ha, well it’s a pretty visceral movie that’s for sure!
Excellent review. I was moved by this film, as well.The setting, the filtered absence of color, the mood and the scene where the man sits down on the river bank knowing full well the wolves are surrounding him and that he would be devoured chilled me to the bone.
Ah, thank you Cindy, that’s most appreciated. That final 20 mins or so is pretty fantastic isn’t it and the scene you’ve referred to is really well done. A particularly underrated picture in my book.
Hi Mark! I haven’t seen this one yet but I really should as I like Neeson and those shots look incredible! Happy new year to you, matey!
Happy New Year to you too Ruth! It’s a really underrated movie in my eyes and Neeson is pretty much at his best here.
Shame on me for continuing to put this off. The Grey really flew under the radar, didn’t it?
Liam Neeson vs Game of Thrones’ dire wolves — what’s not to love??!! (Although I will admit, when I watch this I will be struggling not to picture a scene in which an enraged Neeson gets on a radio and tells the person on the other end if they do not send help. . . . he will find him. And he will kill him.)
Ha ha! He does have a very particular set of skills.
I really loved hoe descriptive your take on it was. Bravo to you, I want to see this film again now.
Sorry comment above went wrong, it was supposed to say I loved your descriptive take. Sometimes I type way too fast!
I got the gist of what you were kindly saying mate; thanks!
Good to know that came across.
It did 🙂