Review: The Grey

Before empires clashed for the control of civilization, before man pitted himself against his fellow man, there was an original conflict which continues to this day: man vs nature. Over thousands of years, man has subdued the power of nature by means of technology, but it would be foolish to believe that equates with a conquered nature. On the contrary, man’s technological mastery never diminishes nature, it simply allows for him to avert it. However, when one robs man of his essential tools and technology, then nature’s true fury and ultimate indifference towards humanity becomes apparent. When he is at his most vulnerable, man realizes that he is a product of nature, and is ultimately subject to its unquestioning forces. This confrontation leads him to his darkest thoughts and his most animalistic  instincts. Yes, this primal conflict has been the essence of storytelling from early man’s discovery of fire to its contemporary displays of power in full force (New Orleans hurricane, Japanese earthquake and tsunami etc). In The Grey, we are presented with a classic example of man against the elements, and although the film occasionally ventures too far outside the realm of plausibility, it offers some surprising insight into the psychology of men on the brink of the chasm between life and death.

Liam Neeson leads the film as Ottway, a meticulous marksman who is hired to protect the drillers of an oil rigging compound located in northern Alaska. His abilities with a rifle make him a prim candidate to defend the men from attacks by the dangerous beasts that lurk in the wilderness. Although he is an expert in his field, Ottway’s soul is but an empty shell of its former self as flashbacks reveal that he is no longer with a woman he loved. While embarking on a flight back to Anchorage, his plane is caught in a storm and crashes in the frost bitten, uncharted tundra. With limited supplies, he and the survivors of the crash are forced to face the same challenge that the nomads of millennia past faced: the harsh, unforgiving climate, and the miles of untamed wild. Chief among their concerns is a sizable pack of wolves who gradually become greater threats to the men as they abandon the open fields and make for the dense woodlands. On the one hand, The Grey has a fairly predictable plot, taking all the expected narrative routes which lead to its climax. However, the film is less concerned with its own plot and is much more about the emotional and psychological toll that takes hold of each man as the film progresses. This film could have very easily been a simple tale about man and the wild, yet there are a couple moments and beats that illuminate much more. At the core of this film is the very question of mortality, the afterlife, and even the presence (or is it absence?) of God.

Neeson turns in some of his strongest work recently here, with the ability to convey both strength and weariness behind his gruff exterior. When he admits to his men in the forrest that he is terrified, he means it with every fiber of his being. The rest of the ensemble is largely comprised of relatively unknown actors, but that does nothing to diminish their work. A few moments play false here and there, and a few scenarios work well outside the realm of realism. However, they are effectively counterweighted with scenes of surprising depth and humanity. Take an early scene, where Ottway scours the plane wreckage for survivors. As he gradually comes across those still on their feet, he finds one man pinned down and bleeding profusely. Although the man does not realize it, he is inches away from death and about to cross over. With remarkable tenderness, Ottway comforts the man and guides him through his final minutes of life. It is a strong yet quiet scene and supplies the film with gravitas as the remaining men are haunted by his passing.

Much of the cinematography in The Grey plays towards the environments, favoring handheld long takes to convey  the slow passage of time and shifting to staggering wide shots to contrast the men with the harsh environments surrounding them. There’s also some effective editing, from intellectual cuts linking Ottway’s thoughts of survival to those of his lost woman, in addition to the standard disorienting characteristic of the action sequences. Less convincing is the computer generated work on the wolves, rarely appearing realistic enough to pose a threat to the company. What leaves the greatest impression from is the sound design, favoring the subjectivity of Ottway, creating wells of silence when his thoughts turn to his lost woman and throwing him back into his bleak situation. Silence is as much an aspect of sound design as are the explosions and bangs heard in any Hollywood blockbuster. In this case, the silence serves its purpose in a deeply powerful way: it suggests a lost past, and dark uncertainty of the future. In the end, The Grey could have very easily been a run of the mill film about the age old clash between man and nature, but it actually illuminates a far more significant and troubling conflict: the battle between man and his maker.

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~ by romancinema on February 10, 2012.

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