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USA 2012
Directed by
Joe Carnahan
117 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4.5 stars


Synopsis: Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a guard at a remote oil drilling operation in the middle of Alaska. He’s responsible for keeping the men safe from the wolves that would attack them while they work. When the plane taking the men home on furlough crashes, he has to lead the survivors to safety, all the while they’re being hunted by a pack of wolves.

It’s far easier to take apart a bad film than to sing the praises of a good one: there’s the failures of structure, the sloppy mise-en-scène, the bad acting, in other words, everything you need to build a solid piece of quasi-intellectual trash talking is readily apparent. Conversely, a genuinely brilliant film can sometimes prove elusive in giving you that skeleton on which to hang your argument. Overwhelmed by the artistry and force of the piece, where exactly do you start in describing how great it is? How do you compose a piece that isn’t gushy and full of redundant superlatives? It’s tricky, and to be honest this is just me covering myself since I’m going to start gushing.

Wow! I didn’t really know what to expect from The Grey, beyond the image of Liam Neeson strapping broken bottles to his fists, ready to face-off against a wolf. And really, someone needs to have a quiet word with whoever cut that trailer. It’s nothing to do with the story being told. But that doesn’t matter, because The Grey transcends poor marketing and delivers an incredibly tense story of survival, and more importantly, a smart meditation on the importance of facing death.

It doesn’t sound like a particularly engaging topic, and the commercial failure of Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film, The Fountain, the last film I can recall that tackles death in any seriously reflective way, makes this a particularly ballsy move. But that’s what it is, a survivalist thriller about a group of men hunted by wolves, fighting to stay alive and at the same time each coming to the point of facing their own death. Make no mistake, some of these guys are doomed and the drama is not in how they will live, but in how they will die. It’s incredibly meaty stuff for such a commercially marketed film.

The direction of the film is impeccable, you’ll feel cold watching it, and the constant threat of wolves just beyond your sight is palpable. There’s an amazing shot midway through with the howling of the wolves from beyond the treeline. They’re invisible save for their breath flying upwards and reflecting the light of the men’s fire. It’s one of the most striking shots I’ve seen in years, and you’ll shiver a little when you see it. That’s not the only moment that’s amazing though. The plane crash itself is excellently staged, with a clever use of subjective camera angles to pull you right inside the experience.

Acting is universally brilliant too. Liam Neeson is ever-reliable as the gruff but sage leader focussing his men on some hope of salvation. Of the men with him, Frank Grillo stands out with a beautifully nuanced performance of a man full of bluff who learns to humble himself without the sense of humiliation that often accompanies less accomplished performances. In the end, he’s probably the centrepiece of the film’s thesis.

It’s rare that you can call a survivalist action thriller a spiritual experience, but in The Grey, Joe Carnahan has made a bracing meditation on life and death. There’s much to chew on, tons of thrilling action and the tension will have you on the edge of your seat. And stick around for the end of the credits, it won’t give you answers, but it’ll feed the debate.




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