A Totally Biased Review: The Grey

A spookfest with an identity crisis that’s a little too smart for its own good.

In my last fully fledged movie review, I briefly spoke about the current state of Hollywood, the blurring lines between genres, and how those genres are only as strong as the parts their stories require. In the case of monster movies, the film, obviously, depends on the strength of its namesake beasty to carry the action, thrills and suspense. Bearing all of this in mind, we arrive at today’s topic of discussion: Liam Neeson’s latest vehicle, The Grey, which, at its bare bones, is simply a man vs. nature styled monster movie, which paints a pretty poor, unfair picture for the wolves populating the expanses of the Alaskan wastes. The film also takes an interesting, insightful look at ideas like love, hope, and perseverance, as well as a stark, bleak look at such frightening themes as hopelessness, isolation, and mortality. And unfortunately for the film, while most of these are great ideas on their own, together they make the film an uneven, unenjoyable spookfest.

As far as I’m concerned, Liam Neeson is a Grade A, one-of-a-kind, complete and utter badass. The reasons this film are even remotely watchable are very few, but I’d like to start the meat of this article off by saying that one of the biggest ones is its main character. It’s almost effortless for Neeson to be a total B.A.M.F., after making such films as Taken, Unknown, and now this. He’s an actor I have always regarded as one of the best of this generation, from Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, and Batman Begins on. He is imposing and seems strong without being a muscled out freak. He seems intelligent and wise even when barely speaking. He has a natural air of confidence and nobility about him at all times. He plays his roles with conviction and realism, and it’s a testament to both himself as a man and as an actor that he does so SO well time and again. Nevermind that the dude’s almost 60! You also can’t help but wonder how much of the real-life pain and grief he experienced after losing his wife he channeled into the role… However much it was, he turns in one of his best performances yet. I simply cannot say enough good things about him. Even despite that, however, even the Mighty Neeson can’t quite save this film.

It opens with his character, Ottway, giving us a quick narrative voice-over while a montage shows him laying with a woman. She left him. And no matter how hard he tries, he isn’t going to get her back. The film makes no attempts to hide the depressing bleakness of the setting and the characters that populate it. So lost in despair this man is, that he even attempts suicide, before someone, or something, stops him. And it’s a good thing, otherwise the rest of the fellas in the movie would have no chance. Ottway is a sharpshooter who is hired by an oil refinery to protect its workers while they… well, work. What does he protect them from? What else? Wolves. They’re the top of the food chain in the expansive, barren, snow-covered wastes where the drilling teams work. And nobody knows them better than Ottway. As generally happens in survival movies, while on a routine flight back from the tundra the heavy turbulence gets the better of the plane, and after one of the most visceral, frightening crash sequences I’ve ever seen, the workers find themselves stranded in the white wasteland. Ottway takes the lead of the outfit, since he knows a thing or two about survival, and once the men discover they’re being stalked by a pack of wolves, his expertise pays dividends. For a while, anyway. The animals pick off their game one-at-a-time, and the men move through the wilderness just one step ahead of them.

Visceral and frightening are two words that can describe nearly the entire film. Brutal, comes to mind. Vicious. The movie is a strange mix of uneven parallels: at once, it’s both very subtle and straightforward with how it sometimes views death, while other times it showcases violence and mortality with penash and gusto. And buckets worth of blood. It is both very touching and insightful concerning its characters as they talk about their lives back home, what they’re fighting to get back to, facing their fears, refusing to give up. But, going back to how brutal the film is, it’s also very cheap with its scares and violence. The juxtaposition of these two styles clashes somewhat awkwardly, where the fleshed out characters are supposed to be relatable, where we’re supposed to care for them more than we would otherwise, but they’re killed off just the same as they would be in a B-grade slasher film. The film does a decent job of making them into more than just nameless victims, but disposes of them just the same, in overly kinetic, quickly cut close-up shots of the animals tearing the men to pieces. During their first night after the crash, it’s never a mystery that the one guy stupid enough to walk off and take a leak by himself is getting torn to shreds, and the agonizing wait for the inevitable attack is, of course, prolonged needlessly, capped off by a sequence of quick, frenetic cuts between bare fangs, flesh and blood.

When the others wake and find his mangled, though uneaten, corpse, Ottway remarks that they didn’t kill him to feed. They did it just to kill him.

Now, call me “The Suspension of Disbelief” police, but I had a really hard time with the film from here on out. Ottway conveniently states that the wolves have a 300-mile feeding radius, and a 30-mile kill radius, meaning that anything within 30 miles of the den is perceived as a threat and killed. If that’s the case, and the wolves are intent are killing off the human survivors, if they are indeed within that 30-mile radius, why would they proceed to spend days playing cat and mouse games while they stalked them? Wouldn’t they just bumrush and tear everything they could to shreds? Logic like this can’t exist in Hollywood films. Why? Because we wouldn’t have a fuckin’ movie! Nevermind that after Ottway makes this claim, the wolves take turns going back and forth between eating the dudes and just killing them outright. On top of everything else, once these sequences begin, there’s very little in the way of “surprises,” besides the shock factor and the cheap scares. In fact, many of these sequences are so frightening that I found myself quite tense and anxious even during the quieter moments. Perhaps that’s the goal of the film-makers to showcase the brutal, unrelenting nature of the film’s situation, but it’s just not something I enjoyed.

I also know it’s a movie and the film-makers aren’t claiming that the creatures in this film are true-to-life, but while on the topic of logic in films, I find it disagreeable the way the creatures are portrayed here, as evil, vindictive monsters that lunge at you from the shadows, killing you simply because they can. The wolves in this film are humanized to the point of being ridiculous, where they attack for revenge and mourn the loss of their fellow pack members. The alpha wolf even “sends in” an omega (an outcast of the pack) simply to “test” one of the men… are you fucking kidding me? I understand animals can conduct coordinated attacks, and they do so once or twice in the movie, but give. me. a fucking. break! I’m not stupid, and neither is the average movie-goer. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I would put money down on wolves not behaving like that in nature. Call me old-fashioned, but movies like this put fear in people that wouldn’t otherwise be there. That’s not to say you should go out and pet a fuckin’ wolf, but misrepresenting anything can be dangerous. Especially just for the sake of a movie. I mean, look at what happened to sharks after Jaws came out.

Despite how much of a badass Neeson is, yet again, in the starring role, there’s only so much even HE can do to carry a film, and as I said in the beginning, a monster movie is only as good as its monster. Unfortunately for The Grey, the monsters are not very convincing. At least, not to the eye. The sound work is thoroughly horrific, however, and some of the film’s scariest sequences borrow heavily from the Jaws idiom that what you think is there is scarier than what you actually see, and in these sequences, the ravenous wolf pack that’s heard offscreen but never seen is absolutely bone-chilling. It’s fortunate that you get a good glimpse of a wolf every so often then, to remind you that they are, in fact, very fake-looking. So fake, in fact, I dare say they could’ve been Taylor Lautner in disguise. I can only remember one or two shots throughout the entire film with what I believed were real wolves, the rest being fake-looking puppets and even faker-looking CGI creatures.

The philosophical ideas touched upon give the film an artsy, sophisticated undertone that feels out-of-place and almost completely lost amidst the cheap scares and harsh violence.

The look of the film greatly adds to the feelings of hopelessness and desolation, and as the film gets nearer and nearer to its conclusion, and the number of survivors dwindles, the landscape grows more and more claustrophobic, from the beginning of their plight out in the open, desert-like expanse of snow banks, until the last scene where the men weave between and around trees, an almost palpable representation of their fate looming closer and closer.  Small, subtle artistic touches like this add a lot to the film, where, in contrast, the derivative, tense sequences are assembled and timed according to the current standard for scary flicks. Upon first viewing, I felt the film really hanged its hat on these scary moments, but in retrospect the artistry for certain aspects almost outshined the cheap thrills. Ottway is suicidal before being thrust into the desperate fight for survival, but now that his life is in peril, he clings to what little hope he has left to live. Immediately after finding the other survivors in a piece of the plane wreckage, Ottway does the only thing he can and comforts a dying man, who slowly accepts his fate. The other men, almost all of whom fancy themselves as big, tough, macho men, are shedding tears, while Ottway remains alert and collected. The dialogue in general is quite good, and showcases many of the more interesting ideas held within the film. The dichotomy of hope in the face of constant, overwhelming, gruesome peril is an interesting one here, but is lost in the myriad of sudden, startling CGI-wolf attacks, the hostile environment, and a looming, bloody, inevitable end.

 I, for one, felt this film was poorly advertised and marketed. Where I was expecting a dramatic story about survival, with a few thrilling sequences sprinkled in throughout with an eventual standoff against some ravenous carnivores along the lines of The Edge (one of the best wilderness survival stories I’ve ever seen, check it out!), I got a dreary, grim, unrelenting monster movie about running from wolves. Mostly unsuccessfully running from wolves. Oh, and it doesn’t help that the film is scary as fuck.

So, if you aren’t afraid of being afraid, and the ideas I’ve mentioned sound interesting, give it a shot. Otherwise, steer clear or wait to rent the Blu-Ray release.

I know I’ll be walking from the car to the house a little bit more quickly from now on.

And just like Ottway, I’m not ashamed to admit it.

One Response to “A Totally Biased Review: The Grey”
  1. Vivian Yattaw says:

    I gave this movie a 5 mostly because of the CG wolves and the way they were portrayed. A wolf is a wolf is a wolf not a man. I don’t believe they understand the concept of revenge, I don’t believe they are evil. Liam Neeson is as usual terrific along with one or two other characters, but I too had a problem with the mix of styles in this movie. Visually I LOVED the landscapes even tho they were incredibly desolate or may be because they were. Wasn’t crazy about the ending and as usual wish I had stayed to watch what happens after the credits. Had a few scary moments but for a monster movie (which to me this ended up being) wasn’t nearly scary enough. Don’t go expecting much and you won’t be disappointed.

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