When I first saw the preview for The Grey, I was immediately put off by the presence of Liam Neeson, as well as the film’s seemingly relentlessly stupid plot and mindless action, but upon watching the trailer a couple more times, I began to see things that influenced me a little more. See, when you watch a preview, you need to look at it in parts, because more times than not, what you see in the preview is what the studio wants you to see and in most cases isn’t what you see in the actual film. A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.
Regarding what caught my eye, there were three things in particular. Three things that may not mean much to the occasional moviegoer, but to someone who spends hours a week watching movie previews over and over again (pathetic, I know, don’t judge me), you pick up on a lot of things really quickly. The very first thing that caught my eye was the camera work. Most action films starring Liam Neeson insist on steady cam for scenes not including action, most notably Taken, which had one of the most steady hands I’ve seen in a picture of that kind. In The Grey‘s preview, this is not the case, starting off with a shot of Neeson simply walking, a voice-over invading the silence of his footsteps.
The second thing that I noticed almost immediately was the casting of Dallas Roberts, who hasn’t made a bad movie big budget movie since I’ve known him, and in many cases, his choice in independent film roles aren’t too bad either. But still, I know that good actors can star in bad movies, so that didn’t necessarily seal the deal for me. What did seal the deal though, was the film’s R rating. Now, you might be thinking I’m crazy, and you might even be considering clicking out of the page, but just stick with me for a bit, there’s a point to all of this.
Now, Liam Neeson is a middle-aged action star who has revived his career quite successfully, once again retaining the sex symbol status that he really never had. He hasn’t made an R rated movie since 2009, meaning he’s spent the last three years happily topping the box office, and at one point probably considered never looking back. What’s even more interesting is the MPAA certification behind the rating which is violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and pervasive language. Not once does it mention excessive gore or sex, but rather a subdued R rating.
I feel like as an industry, film is at a point where if the film earns an R rating, it’s usually because of either nudity or intense psychological drama, whereas PG-13 films have the excessive violence. The Grey proves my point, trading in useless action for some of the most intimate but not necessarily most violent death scenes in recent memory. Following a group of oil drillers in Alaska, a select group of survivors must make their way to safety after their plane back to Anchorage crashes, killing most of the other passengers, as well as the entire crew. Led by their mysterious hunter, Ottway (Liam Neeson), the group of seven survivors must make their way to safety, and in the far north of Earth, they have no idea where that might be.
To add insult to injury, the men are also being picked off by a group of wolves whose den is no more than 20 or 30 miles from their current location. They theorize that they only way they can get to safety is if they make it to a forest about 15 miles from them, they’ll be able to set up a camp, safely away from the pack of wolves, and possibly find a shelter or cabin of some kind. The more they walk, the more dangerous their journey becomes, with the wolves, the storms, and the altitude all playing factors into whether or not they’ll be able to survive this ordeal.
During the lonely nights, the men share stories of back home, what they would do if they made it out alive, and if their faith is enough to get them out alive. Ottway himself thinks of his wife back home, but states early on in an opening voice-over that he’ll never be able to be with her again, and we don’t know why. The film poses both philosophical and religious questions at many points throughout its duration, like the validity of human civility, the reliance on God and other higher beings, as well as survival skills in a time of desperation. There are also plenty of metaphors, as well as a good dose of symbolism to keep you thinking amongst all the atrocity.
The Grey is a film about 100 times sadder than I thought it was going to be, but it was also 100 times better than I thought it was going to be. Taking me completely by surprise, The Grey managed to take me on an emotional journey that I honestly wasn’t ready for. The characters are all individuals, beautifully fleshed out to represent a different walk of life, all with equally true and heartbreaking results.
Writer/Director Joe Carnahan is able to craft a beautiful film from a dismal topic, focusing much more on narrative than action while still keeping up a brisk pace for the film’s 118 minute long running time. But trust me, there’s plenty of action, and even a couple good scares to get the blood pumping. Liam Neeson turns in one of the best performances of his career, but Dallas Roberts is definitely his equal, playing a man of faith who struggles to maintain his sanity at times. He’s the most strong-willed of the group besides Neeson himself, and is the most resourceful when it comes to medical information.
Despite the film’s vast location, the addition of the man hunting wolves surrounding the group gave The Grey an extremely claustrophobic feel, with the mentality that the men have all this open space but nowhere to run. Speaking of the wolves, they were surprisingly realistic looking when looked at up close or dead. After some research, it turns out that they actually were real for the most part. The crew used four dead wolves that had been hunted and discarded in the surrounding area for the more “intimate” scenes. You’ll see what I’m talking about if you go see the movie. But when they weren’t real, the CG animals were quite realistic looking, and on a budget of only $17 million dollars, that’s definitely saying something.
The Grey, simply put, is an arthouse thriller suitable for the megaplex, but could most definitely find a home at your local independent theater. There were plenty of times when I feared that Carnahan would suddenly shift the bleak tone of the film, giving the characters the happy ending we know they deserve, but thankfully he doesn’t, and it results in a final scene that keeps playing over and over again in my head. It’s equally riveting and revealing, and if you have any remnants of a soul, you’ll probably shed a tear or two like I did. And on the bright side, the black guy does not die first in this movie. That right there should be enough incentive to hand over your ten dollars, right?