Yeah, yeah. It's easy to say in January about the first great movie of 2012, but there it is. If January is any indication of what kind of movie year we're going to have, I think 2012 may go down as being exceptional in the quality of films we'll get this year, and the fact that it will be a full, consistent year, instead of spots of good movie releases, makes me happy. We got HAYWIRE, Steven Soderbergh's foray into action filmmaking, and it's really good. And then we get Joe Carnahan's THE GREY, which on its surface seems to be a man-against-nature movie, but is so deeply resonant, and full of great characters and acting, and a towering performance by Liam Neeson, who gives us something as iconic as Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery. No, I'm not being hyperbolic. This, along with Oskar Schindler, may just be the role he's most remembered for.
I may have to dive into a bit of spoiler territory in writing this review. See, the trailers are doing a bit of disservice when showing some of the moments of the movie. Sure, THE GREY is absolutely an adventure film, and Liam Neeson going glass-knuckled against a pack of wolves is in there - but without the context of the scene it's practically meaningless. In the trailer, it just looks like a moment of Neeson badassery. But as it plays out in the film, it's so much more significant in what it represents. And yet, I'm certain that audience members may feel cheated when they finally do come across that scene, but emotionally, it's a moment of pure triumph and a raging against the dying of the light. Or, as Ottway's (Neeson) father so eloquently puts it in a poem that he wrote in Ottway's youth:
Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I'll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day
Ottway is a haunted man - haunted by his past and full of regret. Much of the narration of the film is through Ottway's letter to his wife, and he is a man that seeks solitude. You get the idea that something terrible has happened in Ottway recently, and now he is past trying to make amends for it. Ottway spends his days as a sharpshooter for the oil companies that are drilling in the area; keeping the wolves at bay while the men work. Ottway and the other men board a flight to Anchorage for some rest and relaxation, but fate plays its hand, and in one of the film's more intense sequences, the plane crashes violently.
The other survivors - Diaz (Frank Grillo), the resident tough guy; Heinrick (Dallas Roberts), a man of faith; Talget (Dermot Mulroney) who misses his daughter and is desperate to get back to her; and Burke (Nonso Alozie) who catches ill and tries to endure the bitter cold - team together to try to make it to some kind of civilization. But all around them, they hear the howls and see the movement. They have wandered into the wolves' territory, and they are not welcome. The wolves, done with CGI as well as modelwork, are truly terrifying, and Carnahan plays the tension and unease like a conductor doing a symphony. You never know what will happen next, and there are moments of pure fright in THE GREY that will make many audience members jump. THE GREY delivers on its thrills. Ottway must lead this ragtag group of men into safety, even as he must overcome his own personal demons to do so.
But it's the deeper emotional truths of THE GREY that boost the film into something more than a routine man-vs.-nature movie. THE GREY is about something - it's about man's willingness to live despite the odds, it's about how a person can relate to a God that is seemingly absent, and the struggle to make sense of it all when everything you've seen and felt simply doesn't. Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' script (based on Jeffers' short story "Ghost Walker") goes much more in depth into the characters and their feelings than is normal in a movie like this, and that gives it a power that makes THE GREY a more fulfilling experience. All the characters feel genuine and real, and not simple caricatures. So when death strikes, you feel it. There is one scene in particular, as Ottway tries to talk a man through his own death, that is shocking and powerful and true. Seeing that scene, and a few others in the film, it's hard not to reflect on Neeson's own recent losses in his life, and watching him channel that emotion into his performance is at times difficult to watch.
THE GREY is Joe Carnahan's best film, flat out. His work here is terrific - not only does he get great performances from his actors, but the sheer difficulty of the shoot comes through in the film. The weather you see in THE GREY is real, and you can feel that wind cut through you as you see it. It would be awesome if theaters played THE GREY with the air conditioner going full blast, just to get a taste of it. The wolves, a mixture of CGI and puppetry, are scary and well done - they make logical sense in the film, even if your preconceived notions of how wolves behave conflict with the movie. The wolves can be taken as metaphor or as reality - it's all in how you want to perceive it. Regardless, they work.
And then there is Liam Neeson, who is tremendous here. There is so much raw power and emotion in his work that sometimes you want to look away, especially in a scene where he rages against God for everything that's happened. You can imagine that he thought similar thoughts as the tragic events of his recent loss happened to him. But he puts it all in his performance, and the result is something iconic and one that I feel that he'll be remembered for. I'm not kidding when I compare Neeson's work here to Eastwood or Connery - he delivers at exactly that level and I'm so happy that he's become, in his later years, a surrogate for those icons.
I hope people embrace the film for what it is and not for what they expected in the trailers. THE GREY is very much a poem, a character study, and in its quiet moments finds true grace. It's also a riveting adventure, a scary thriller, and a powerful drama. It is a terrific film, and I have the feeling that when we look back on it later in the year it will only grow in stature and importance. Ernest Hemingway would have approved of THE GREY.