Co-Written and Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Co-Written by: Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (screenplay)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo
In Alaska, an oil drilling team flying home crash on the frozen tundra. Stranded, wounded, freezing and starving – they’re hunted by pack of wolves that see them as intruders.
I know that some of trailers you may have seen are positioning The Grey as Taken in the snow; where instead of Liam Neeson using his ‘unique skills’ to catch and kill euro-trash kidnappers, he’s beating the living Christ out of vicious four legged adversaries.
Well you’d be wrong. Wrong because it’s so much more than it’s being pigeonholed by its marketing. Writer/Director Joe Carnahan has produced an astounding and intimate tale of the value of life in a scenario with sublime obstacles, and it is best film that I’ve seen this year. The Grey is an immersive experience: a harrowing ride that had me holding my breath, laughing out loud, cringing and on a number of occasions, I was moved to tears.
From the minute the film begins there’s a sweeping, evocative, impressionist perspective of the impossibly hostile environment. Carnahan use of light is powerful in transitioning the moods of the protagonist. He contrasts the artificial yellow floodlight of the mine site with the near blinding warmth of Ottway’s flashbacks, to the soft intimate light of a desk lamp as Ottway pens a letter (to what we can assume is his former love). Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a hired hunter that protects the miners from the four-legged predators that occupy the wilderness surrounding their drill sites. Carnahan ties us to Ottway – we’re given an insight into what’s haunting him as Liam Neeson’s the mellifluous voice narrates his internal workings as he’s attempting to cathartically dispel the trauma in his past. And the other element that is integral and so succinct is the introduction of the miners that also occupy the base. You’re immediately invested in the ensemble because you’re forced to ask the question – what kind of man works here – in the wilderness, isolated from civilisation?
This film compiles a series of scenarios that look to test the participants physically, emotionally and mentally. What could be more terrifying than a plane failing mid air and falling out of the sky? And this plane crash that is one of the most striking and authentic that I’ve ever seen portrayed. If you’re on the fence with flying you may want to close your eyes during this scene. What immediately follows sets the tone for The Grey. Ottway awakes from unconsciousness, launched out of the plane and into the snow. Fighting wind and injuries sustained during the crash he trudges through the snow to main wreckage site and the shell of the fuselage to the other survivors and those fatally wounded attempting to hold onto life. Ottway makes his way to Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) caring for one of the injured men and with a glance at his wounds, he realises that this man doesn’t have long to live. With profound tenderness and grace he holds the man and comforts him and begs for him to let go. The powerful empathy has me moved to tears simply recounting this moment to you. I won’t continue to recount anything else in too much detail, as I don’t want to dampen its affect. I’m desperate for you to experience it too. The Grey is a test for the characters; and it’s a test for us (the viewer). I was dragged into this scenario, asking myself, what would I do? How would I react? It is a gyre of obstacles: blizzards, bitter cold, potential starvation, altitude sickness and a pack of perfect predators built to survive in that hostility.
This all male ensemble is one of the best that I’ve seen in recent memory. The group of character actors put through assigned to portray broken men in the midst of this insurmountable challenge are wonderful. Henrick’s (Dallas Roberts) is wonderfully observant and determined. Roberts has popped up in bit roles in Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma but gets a genuine space to demonstrate his great understated style. Diaz (Frank Grillo) is a cocksure, bleak, opportunist that takes great pride in the futility of their situation. Grillo was essential to Warrior as the seasoned trainer Frank and he stamps his presence on this role and announces his arrival to the increasing group of character actor leading men. His next project is Carnahan’s Death Wish re-make and into the shoes of the one and only Charles Bronson. Talget (Dermot Mulroney) and Burke (Nonso Anozie) round out the core group and Mulroney and Anozie do a fine job of making their characters three dimensional with less dominant roles then the aforementioned men.
Finally, I would say without a doubt that this Liam Neeson’s best performance. Ottway is tough, stoic, physically powerful but it’s his emotional wounds, rich empathy and mystique surrounding his past that makes for his most whole character that I’ve seen. He’s perfectly cast; this is a role built for everything Neeson has to offer. You even get a sense that Carnahan’s got a fondness for his protagonist because unlike the simple recounting of stories that his companions do throughout their task, occasionally we flash to hazy memories past. In one of these glimpses, he recounts a story about his father writing one solitary poem, which Neeson’s brogue caresses and projects:
Once more into the fray
For the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day
The Grey made me forget that I was a film reviewer. I went into the fray and rode this intense, emotional ride with the characters. The Grey is hypnotic, terrifying, affective, poetic, and the best film that I’ve seen this year.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman