The Grey

The Grey

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Liam Neeson teams up once more with his A-Team director Joe Carnahan for a frostbitten thriller that sinks its teeth in deep even if it doesn't quite have enough meat on its bones. Co-written by Carnahan with flashes of the earnest grit of his breakout cop drama NARC, The Grey is an old-school man-against-the-elements thriller, enlivened by committed performances and the spectacular locale. What really elevates the film however - at points to the spine-tingling pitch of the horror genre - is its villainous pack of flesh-hungry wolves, constantly snapping at the characters' heels in a manner that puts even their fantastical cousins in the likes of Twilight and the Underworld films to shame.

Ottway is a ranger at an Alaskan oil drilling facility, hunting wolves that threaten its employees and drowning his sorrows with the dregs of society that call the outpost home. A flight back to relative civilisation is interrupted by turbulence which soon takes the craft down in flames and strands the scattered survivors in a blizzard-swept, snowbound wilderness. As they come to their senses and attempt to form a plan to reach safety, the group realise they may be prey for the local wildlife, if the cold doesn't get them first.

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Early scenes wring real emotion from Neeson's yearning voiceover; it's impossible not to be reminded of the actor's recent personal tragedy, his wife Natasha Richardson's fate having been sealed in a similarly wintry setting. This whole project could be viewed as cathartic penance for the charismatic actor, and he carries us into Ottway's tortured state with integrity and conviction. Dreamy sequences invoke his ambiguously lost love in a way that can be reminiscent of cliched soft-focus soap ads, but to his credit Carnahan knows when to pull the rug out from under the audience, bringing us crashing back to his protagonist's reality.

The build-up to and execution of the film's pivotal disaster surpasses previous benchmarks of air-bourne calamity in the likes of Lost and the original Final Destination; Carnahan employs fish-eye lenses and painfully tight close-ups to put the audience right in the characters' places. Subsequent scenes of wrenching mortality and survivalist scavenging draw the viewer further into the characters' plight (the echoes of Nineties true story cannibal-drama Alive are cheekily noted by the group), with the varied ensemble managing to register as individuals without excessive exposition.

Once their alarmingly beastly foes make their presence known though, it's surprising and shocking to see how quickly the cast are whittled down, often before their characters' names have even been cemented in your mind. There is a real sense that the wolves could strike at any moment, and pretty much anyone might be fair game to them. The Grey is essentially a Boy's Own film for adults, but its air of genuine menace transcends the sort of schtick that often sinks the genre, an ominous score darkening the tone even further.

One of the film's greatest strengths is its brutally authentic location-work; the chill of the wild is keenly felt in every shot, making this the most relentlessly grueling cinematic ordeal since Vincent Gallo was put through his paces in Essential Killing. The Grey would perhaps benefit from that film's taut sub-90-minute run-time and sparse, spare approach; the pace here lags during the lengthy and frequent scenes of dialogue-heavy reflection, the overly obvious script's attempts to tackle religious faith and the nature of man falling flat due to the familiarity of everything that's being pondered.

Where Carnahan excels, however, is in rudely puncturing these leisurely moments with shock-inducing frights, often following the jolts up with viscerally staged suspense set-pieces where the screw is expertly turned through his masterful mounting. The audience is thrown right into the thick of the life-or-death situations through the director's kinetic, in-your-face camerawork and some frighteningly convincing stunt-work. The way that faulty logic, unforeseen obstacles and heart-stoppingly sudden accidents combine to inexorably drag the characters closer to death will at times have the viewer gasping for air, recalling the recent and similarly thrilling A Lonely Place To Die.

Neeson makes for an impressively plausible Bear Grylls-type, defying his 59 years of age; his bear-like stature is put to good use throughout, his sheer size giving his character some credibility in the many man-vs-wild stand-offs. He's notably less effective in later outbursts of God-defying desperation, and the sense of canny resilience that served him so well in Seraphim Falls is here replaced by a more routinely macho sensibility that sits uneasily with the occasional attempts to paint Ottway in a more sensitive light.

The cast are solid in general though, clearly having suffered for their art; they're near-constantly wading knee-deep in snow and fleeing for their lives in the harshest of conditions. It's great to see Frank Grillo notch up another memorable supporting performance - following his sterling work in Mother's Day and Warrior - with a refreshingly unrepentant asshole, while Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Nonso Anozie all bring nuance to their roles as family men who are forced to reassess their place in life's pecking order.

Despite cribbing many of its best moments from people-in-peril predecessors such as Frozen and Cliffhanger, The Grey holds up as a bracing example of the manly adventure story. If you can contain the cringe during its indulgent and unsuccessful attempts to be taken seriously as a humanity-affirming drama, Carnahan's latest offers plenty of well-tuned tension and inventively-staged set-pieces. Traditional action-flick fans should be warned of the film's unnecessary detours into pretension - including an abrupt ending that will have much of its target audience foaming at the mouth along with the film's fur-clad fiends - but anyone looking for some mid-winter excitement would do well to check this out.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2012
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Following a plane crash in the remote Arctic, the survivors must face off against a pack of wolves.
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Director: Joe Carnahan

Writer: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers

Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie

Year: 2012

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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A Lonely Place To Die
The Revenant