The Grey [Blu-Ray]
Director : Joe Carnahan
Screenplay : Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Liam Neeson (Ottway), Dallas Roberts (Hendrick), Frank Grillo (Diaz), Dermot Mulroney (Talget), Nonso Anozie (Burke), Joe Anderson (Flannery), Ben Hernandez Bray (Hernandez), James Badge Dale (Lewenden), Anne Openshaw (Ottway’s Wife), Peter Girges (Company Clerk), Jonathan Bitonti (Young Ottway), James Bitonti (Ottway’s Father)
After the deliberately cartoonish hyperbole of Smokin’ Aces (2006) and The A-Team (2010), director Joe Carnahan finally appears to be making good on the early promise he showed a decade ago with his sophomore film, the gritty police thriller Narc (2002). The Grey, which he cowrote with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from Jeffers’s short story “Ghost Walker,” is a physically and philosophically grueling survival thriller than pits a small group of plane-crash-surviving oil workers against the stark, unrelenting brutality of the Alaskan wilderness. Said brutality pummels them in myriad ways—the blinding snow, the freezing temperatures, the vastness of the terrain—although it is specifically embodied in a pack of enormous, vicious wolves into whose territory the men have crashed. The wolves view the men as a threat to their den and proceed to hunt them down one by one, not for food, but out of some kind of deep-seated primordial rage. The patent unreality of the wolves’ behavior will probably annoy ecologists and other animal behavior experts, but it fits well with the film’s overall theme about the violence of nature in the raw and the isolation of the human soul.
The ostensible protagonist is John Ottway (Liam Neeson, who previously headlined Carnahan’s The A-Team), an Irish sharpshooter who protects the workers at an Alaskan oil refinery from the wildlife. We first hear him in voice-over narration writing a poignant letter to his wife, who we see in gauzy, brightly lit flashbacks that demand we assume she has either left him or died. Ottway’s hulking frame sags with regret, and his sadness is confirmed in the first few minutes when he puts the muzzle of his rifle into his mouth and prepares to end it all. Alas, he doesn’t go through with it, but instead boards a plane with dozens of other oil workers who are headed home. After the plane crashes (in spectacularly violent fashion that makes you feel every piece of metal breaking away in the frigid wind), only seven men survive to face the harsh Alaskan wilderness, which is shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior) in oppressive shades of white and swirling film grain. Ottway becomes the de facto leader because he seems to know the most about survival in the wilderness. The other members of the group are largely interchangeable, although a few stand out, including Diaz (Frank Grillo), a beligerent ex-con whose insistence that he feels no fear is testament not to his bravery, but to his bluster, and Talget (Dermot Mulroney), his bespectacled and soft-spoken opposite.
Although staying warm and finding food are immediate concerns, it quickly becomes apparent to the men that the main obstacle between them and survival is the pack of wolves that descend upon them the first night (the wolves are entirely computer-generated, and while they look a little cartoonish at times, like they escaped from a Twilight film, Carnahan wisely suggests their presence more than he shows them). Ottway is conveniently an expert in the film’s highly fictionalized version of wolf behavior, so he is able to narrate to the other men (and the audience) the various implications of their predicament. The manner in which Carnahan first introduces the wolves—a sea of glowing eyes in the darkness just feet from the fire around which the men are huddled—is a chilling moment that visually underscores the realization of just how vulnerable they (and we) are.
That scene and several others suggest that The Grey is more of a horror movie than a conventional thriller, particularly given its philosophical subtext about the nature of humankind’s precarious place in the natural world. We have become accustomed to, even comfortable with, watching characters die on screen, so it is both shocking and engaging that Carnahan actually pays attention to the mechanics by which life leaves the human body. In fact, death becomes the film’s binding theme, as characters leave the world in a variety of ways: Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but always violently. Some are torn apart by the wolves, others fall to their deaths, and in one particularly brutal moment, a character drowns in a river mere inches beneath the surface while another character struggles in vain to save him. In scene after scene Carnahan and Jeffers pound home the indifference of the universe to the plight of the dwindling number of men to the point that their survival of the plane crash becomes a kind of nihilistic joke: Why survive something so heinous if nothing awaits them but a different kind of death, one that is perhaps even more painful and horrifying? Are we watching a disguised entry in the Final Destination franchise?
It is not surprising, then, that the characters eventually debate the existence of God around a campfire, giving voice to precisely the question of whether they are alone in their endeavors. The film seems to confirm their existential dilemma, as we eventually find the lone survivor screaming at God to give him a sign, any kind of sign, and being met with only the blank indifference of an open expanse of gray sky. “I’ll do it myself,” he mutters before moving on to his own fate. Neeson was a natural choice for the role of Ottway, even though it seems to confirm a distressing trend of the great actor to slum in vengeful action roles in understated January releases (see Unknown and Taken). Neeson’s particular brand of masculinity blends physicality, resourcefulness, and reflection, and we can’t help but see more into his character than is probably there. The Grey works in a similar way, drawing us into a rather simple survival story but shading it with fundamental questions of faith that invite widely divergent responses.
|The Grey Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy|
|Audio||English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround|
|Distributor||Universal Studios Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 15, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The Grey is presented in a generally solid 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on a BD50 disc. The transfer ably replicates my memory of the theatrical viewing experience, which means an image that is somewhat grainy at times, especially in long shots when the wind is blowing snow around, but at other times is incredibly sharp, especially in the close-ups that make us feel the scratch of beard stubble and the roughness of scabbed-over wounds. Colors are understandably muted throughout, with a heavy emphasis on grays (duh!), whites, blacks, and chilly blues, which makes the intrusion of blood feel all the more striking when it happens. As good as the image transfer is, the DTS-HD 5.1-channel soundtrack is absolutely outstanding. The sound design on the film is impeccable, putting us right in the middle of a screeching airplane crash, howling snowstorms, and dead silence punctuated by low growls. The surround channels are incredibly active and display excellent directionality such that you can sense changes in wind direction behind you and pick out the location of individual wolves as they descend on all sides. This is one you’ll want to pop into your system to show off your speaker set-up.|
|The audio commentary by director Joe Carnahan and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann is a great listen. Recorded together (while knocking back some Scotch), they provide plenty of meat-and-potatoes background in terms of the film’s production, as well musings about the film’s religious and philosophical subtext and plenty of bluntly opinionated thoughts about, well, pretty much everything. Carnahan’s gruff demeanor and damn-the-torpedoes honesty adds an additional level of entertainment to the track (he reminds me a bit of John Milius in his heyday), and he doesn’t mind calling out people he doesn’t like or with whom he had a bad experience working, including an animal trainer on The Grey and the physical effects supervisor on The A-Team—and don’t get him started on PETA and the Humane Society. Also on the disc are six deleted scenes, some of which are extensions or different versions of scenes already in the film (including one in which Otway’s suicide is interrupted not by the sound of wolves, but rather by the appearance of a polar bear, which Carnahan in the audio track describes as his “idiotic idea”).|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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