You may walk into The Grey hoping for the disposable silliness that the trailer hinted at; Liam Neeson punching wolves. You will walk out of The Grey glad that’s not what you got. This is a legitimate dramatic work, worthy of serious consideration.
It’s easy to forget, after entertaining but flimsy films like Smoking Aces and The A-Team, that Joe Carnahan is a legitimate filmmaker with the prestige muscle to create truly affecting and resonant work. It may seem a long time since Narc but with The Grey he is back to making real films with real weight. This isn’t Taken with wolves; it’s a savage, mournful meditation on the inevitability of death and the absence of God.
The opening narration carries a weary poetry reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, setting a tone that carries throughout the film. It’s a tough, unforgiving experience and it offers no comfort but it is as reflective as it is ruthless. It touches on the big questions; death and what waits on the other side. Not new or particularly enlightening questions, but they are the biggest questions that every man and woman will ask at one point in they lives. That point, invariably, will be near the end.
The Grey’s scariest moments are not the intense wolf attacks but simply the characters considering what will happen when death comes for them, in a world devoid of God there is nothing, you simply cease to be. You have no second chance to see your loved ones again, you leave them behind and you will never see them again. When this idea takes hold, when you confront the reality of death, it sticks in your gut like a sickness.
The fear that there is nothing else waiting for us is what drives the survival instinct of these characters. How can you really live if you do not fear death? How can we comprehend such questions if death is not absolute? In The Grey, death is a part of the environment; the climate, the terrain, the complete isolation, everything is a constant reminder of your own mortality. The greatest representation of death, however, are the wolves that stalk the land. The film makes no bones about it, these creatures are death incarnate; patient, exacting and inescapable. You may run, you may find shelter, but they have your scent and they will find you eventually.
The film uses its budgetary constraints to its advantage, keeping glimpses of the wolves to a minimum, usually concealed by shadow or a thick wall of snowfall. When death comes in The Grey, by wolf or simply the elements themselves), it is not cinematic or entertaining. Death is sad and scary, abrupt and without ceremony or sentiment. The wolf attacks themselves are handled either at a distance or in extreme close quarters (again, likely to conceal the low budget) and they are finished before your heart rate has a chance to even out, there’s a chaos to the way these attacks are carried out that only deepens the nihilistic mood that the film and it’s characters wrestle with throughout.
Liam Neeson has had a late career revival as an unlikely action hero, but do not mistake The Grey for another cash-in-hand piece of work that he can do in his sleep, he gives possibly his best performance since Schindler’s List. He is a man haunted by his past, defined by loss and his lack of hope, and it’s hard not to see Neeson injecting some of his own experiences with tragedy and pain. He brings a believability to the part that keeps you invested in his ordeal.
Neeson is not alone, he comes with some strong support from Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney and Joe Anderson. Every character has a distinct personality and they are played like real men with a real history, a life far beyond the unforgiving snow that surrounds them, this essential element of humanity makes the danger feel real and makes the likelihood of death all the more distressing.
The Grey put its hooks into me within the opening narration and even now, hours after seeing it, they’re still there, digging away at me. This is a gripping, moving film and if there are ten better films released this year then 2012 is going to be a great year for film fans.