02 February 2012

First Impressions: The Grey

Liam Neeson is a confounding actor to watch. Whereas he seems to have the instant appeal of gravitas, humility, and a classical actor aura to him, at age 59 he's also one of the few reliably bankable action stars working today. He's also an absolute badass. With that, we have The Grey (2012), the first great film of the year, another salute to just how good January can be, especially as it's turning into Liam Neeson month, somehow. Some spoilers abound.

This film succeeds because it has an incredibly clear-cut and understood premise (Liam Neeson fights wolves) and sticks by that premise for the entire run time. There aren't any bells and whistles or time traveling robots or ghosts or double-crossing whatever. The group of guys stranded in the Alaskan Wilderness don't have a murderer among them or Satan's Child or something else dumb like that to distract from the simple plot. It's about men and survival. Against Wolves.

So to this backdrop we have Ottway (Neeson) who is thrown into this leadership position of this gang of plane-crashed oil drillers by default thanks to his practical survival knowledge, authoritarian personality, and confidence. The plane crash is harrowing and the continual cuts between him and his (probably) lost lover bring a connection to this guy that we realise everyone has, even the most hardened tough dudes. Everyone has that loved one that provides their anchor to civilisation. It's why the men don't break down (Besides Diaz a few times, but he comes back relatively quickly). They are real characters in an outstanding situation.

It's this ordinary anchor that creates most of the tension in the film. Jumping off a cliff into a tree isn't a huge spectacle in the movies. Tom Mapother did it last month in much more spectacular fashion under tenser circumstances and from a much crazier height. The framing of The Grey and the real pain, exhaustion, and genuine ability of the characters in the cliff leaping scene establish a much greater tension. Leaving the guy most nervous last was an epic decision by Writer/Director Joe Carnahan. Also thanks to this movie I feel like I can never complain about being cold again.

So let's get to the Wolves. Again, the attacks are so sudden on these hapless, normal people that it really brings a level of fear and grim to the flick. Carnahan does a nice job blurring the attacks with some nasty close-ups that illustrate the confusion and inability to make critical decisions when, well, when you're attacked by wolves.

It's also important to note how the two groups mirror each other, if not that subtly. Liam is clearly the Alpha in the Pack of People, and when Diaz tries to challenge that role he's put down, exactly like the wolves seem to do in the darkness. The men band together like a pack, helping and relying on each other, and do end up killing one of the pups. There is this back and forth antagonism between the Wolves and Humans as each takes down bits of the other and they taunt back and forth through fire, howls, and screaming. The home turf advantage is just too great though, and ultimately the day belongs to the canines.

This film has a few big themes, one of which is masculinity in the wilderness, which was covered pretty well in The Edge (1997), also about a few men surviving after an Alaskan Plane Crash. THAT movie did have a bizarre, stupid twist though, and it suffered for it. The Grey is cut and dry. Its plot echoes the kind of characters who fill it - blue collar, simple men who are only trying to achieve one thing - get home. Likewise the plot is also only trying to achieve one thing - survive (yes, by fighting wolves). In The Edge it was a big ass Kodiak who was tormenting Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, which they eventually kill. In The Grey though, it's a pack of wolves and nature proves the victor, claiming the lives of men who try to puff out their chest as well as their brains to beat the elements. The film isn't anything like a total indictment of masculinity, however, and there are bigger themes here.

The biggest thing that every character has to struggle with is his own mortality. Diaz's death scene in particular stands out because he accepts his fate, unlike any other character. This is because he's one of the only ones we know of who doesn't have anything great back home. He's not making the journey for anyone but himself and when he realises that there isn't a reason for him to continue. Everyone else needs to make it to reunite with loved ones, Diaz only left fat whores behind. He is absorbed back into nature once he finds and makes peace with his life and mortality.

The big exception to what I just said is Ottway. There is a strong implication that he also has no one to go back for and that his lover who he dreams about is passed on. Ottway is suicidal at the beginning of the film because he doesn't think he has anything to live for. He refuses to kill himself however, when he hears a wolf howl in the distance. This may be because he realises that he has a duty to protect the men, or maybe it's just this age-old vengeance against wolves.

The ending to this film is nearly perfect. For all of Ottway's attempts at saving the men and getting them back home, he has led them (although by this point they have all since died) straight into The Den, the Wolf's Lair. Seemingly, their entire quest has been futile and there is no way out. Ottway cries out for God's help, and receiving none, he takes it upon himself to get out of the mess. Facing down the wolves, Ottway prepares for what he knows will be his last few minutes, by arming himself and bracing for the onslaught.

Why does he do this? Ottway was suicidal at the beginning of the film and the likely reason he didn't pull the trigger was because he felt a debt still existed to protect the men. When he has essentially failed at doing so, having lost so many to the Pack, why can't he roll over and die in the snow, give himself up and accept mortality like Diaz did? Is it vengeance that drives him? Some honour that he thinks he will achieve? The answer lies with his Father's poem that echoes over the final shot, which is one of the best in recent memory.
Once more into the fray.
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live or die on this day.
Live or die on this day.
It is not in Ottway to give up. It's not in him to depend on anyone else. He has a fight that cannot be silenced or stowed away. Finally here his father's words ring true to him and when he knows that this will be his last fight, it's a validation and culmination to something he's been chasing. He criticises himself as someone who deserved to be among the thieves and other societal outcasts in the Wilderness. He is more at home fighting wolves than socialising in a bar. He has a wolf in him and knows only to fight. The last fray is between two Alphas. When you're an Alpha you cannot back down from such a challenge. Ottway will die but he will die defending himself in honour, honouring his father, his lover, his sins and his men, not cowering in a snowbank.

That is, until we see the sequel where he killed the Alpha, took his place and is now THE GREY II: KING OF WOLVES (2014). Can't wait.

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