Friday, July 13, 2012

Liam Neeson is a Badass. (Wolves Howling.)

Movie Review: The Grey

Director: Joe Carnahan

Reviewed: 13 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

When I watch movies at home, I employ subtitles whenever possible because I struggle with my hearing and enjoy catching minor bits of conversations that sometimes are relevant.  I use subtitles as often as possible, even with an action film or thriller, and when watching Joe Carnahan's thriller The Grey, I relished the subtitles for their subtitle interpretation of the film because a person who crafts subtitles has to represent the sonic architecture of a film, its unique sound design, as well as straight-up translate dialogue, a daunting task.

Here's a quick burst of that unnamed person's work on the subtitles from ten minutes of this film:

Wolves Growling.

Wolves Howling.

Wind Howling.

Wolf Growls.


Wolf 1 Whimpers.

Wolves Continue Howling.

Alpha Howling.

Wolves Howling In Response.

The set-up for The Grey is classic: oil pipeline workers and their wolf-sniper-for-hire Ottway (Liam Neeson) in Alaska crash their airplane horrifically upon the frozen tundra, leaving bodies strewn across the horizon.  Ottway's survival skills make him a natural leader post-crash, with a cadre of cagey characters left to negotiate survival against the elements.  All the elements.  Beyond the imminent blizzards and subzero temperatures, there are packs of ravenous, vicious violent wolves roaming around the edges of the frame.  Big wolves.  With sharp teeth.  And no fear.  There's talk of wolves being the only animals that "seek revenge" as well as the danger of being near the den of the wolves (not good).  There's hunting and marking of territory.  There's howling.  There's wolves crushing human faces in their mouths.  There's blood.

Carnahan's film is swiftly told and executed with plenty of genuine scares and surprises, and the film resembles a shark attack film where you wait for nature to take each character and winnow away the group in unsuspected ways while also containing elements of both The Edge and Alive (I particularly like that one character references Alive at one point).  There's a Lost element to the first half hour, with some particularly nasty nihilistic dialogue and jokes as well as the imminent fear of wolf attacks.  Always.  Wolves are demonic forces in this film, unstoppable and omnipresent, indifferent to the maneuvers of the ever-dwindling pack of survivors who contemplate making a break for the tree line amidst a blizzard.  Wallets of the dead are collected for their families.  Ottway wrestles with his faith as well as his survival skills as they clash with the elements: thick snow, treacherous cliffs, chilling rivers.  And the wolves.  Oh, the wolves.

Liam Neeson holds the picture firmly in place with another strong, classic performance with gravitas and some seriously emotional catharsis.  Has any actor displayed more incredible range of his generation than Neeson?  Is there anything he cannot deliver?  The list of roles includes Oskar Schindler, the dad from Love Actually, the dad from Taken, Qui-Gon Jinn, Hannibal from A-Team, Zeus, Henri Ducard in Batman Begins, as well as Alfred Kinsey from Kinsey and Priest Vallon from Gangs of New York.  The guy has been Michael Collins, Rob Roy, Ethan Frome, and Aslan the lion.  Here, his role most closely resembles a performance a few years back in a Civil War era chase survival film that I quite like, Seraphim Falls, with Neeson pursuing and being pursued by Pierce Brosnan.  In this film, there are some glowing sequences with Ottway's wife in flashbacks that violently rip him back into reality upon waking, as well as some cogent discussions of fate, free will, and what it means to survive.  Carnahan is not afraid to let there be quiet moments, examinations of photographs, as well as showing Neeson's craggy face, bloody and scratched, as he considers his ever-diminishing options.

In college, my American Literature Professor Lentz used to encourage us to write papers attempting degrees of difficulty, meaning there were paper topics that he considered significantly more challenging than others.  You could get a higher grade for attempting a degree of difficulty on, say, Huck Finn or The Ambassadors.  It was his acknowledgment that some papers involving wrestling with more challenging ideas, and that should be rewarded and encouraged.  Some movies attempt more than others.  Some play it safe.  Some do not.  Degree of difficulty is something that came to mind with this movie.  Nearly every scene involves Neeson, the swirling snow, howling wind, as well as blood and actors wrapped up in ski masks and gloves.  Carnahan's film feels oppressively cold, and although I didn't learn the names of the supporting characters, I liked some of the conflicts and philosophical debates as well as some of the gallows humor.  In filming The Grey, Carnahan has taken on a degree of difficulty and delivered superlatively.  It must have been an awful film to shoot.

A word about the wolves.  There's some impressively used CGI, as well as quick movements from either side of the frame, long and terrifying shots of sprinting wolves, and pairs of demonic yellow eyes approaching from the darkness.  I'm not sure how many of the wolves used in the film were real wolves, but they felt real.  In close-ups, the downright nastiness of them was overpowering, but they didn't take me out of the film as much as visual effects sometimes do.  Carnahan seems to be using the wolf pack tracking the men to represent a malevolent force, as the ticking of time itself, as emblematic of nature's elements and all that constantly works to destroy a person.  I have never been as scared of wolves as I was watching this film.

The film's climactic final scene was riveting, and Neeson delivers the truth.  I feel like it is impossible to witness Neeson in pain and emotional while remaining unmoved.  I don't know if it is because of the personal tragedy that I know he has endured, or just because his face is so expressive and carries with it the remnants of his other characters with it.  He brings baggage to a role in the best possible way.  Wolves, watch out!  Ferocious and bold, The Grey is a very good film with viciousness and harshness.

Alpa Howling.

Wolves Continue Howling.

(Wolves always continue howling.)

And do watch the film past the credits.  Major degree of difficulty and one of the best films of 2012 so far.

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