The Grey (2011)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #572

 

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Number of Views: One
Release Date: December 11, 2011 (Austin premiere), January 27, 2012 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Survival/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $25,000,000
Box Office: $77,300,000
Running Time: 117 minutes
Director: Joe Carnahan
Producers: Jules Daly, Joe Carnahan, Ridley Scott, Mickey Liddell
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan, Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Based on Ghost Walker by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Special Effects: Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Score: Marc Streitenfeld
Editing: Roger Barton, Jason Hellmann
Studios: LD Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, Inferno Distribution
Distributor: Open Road Films
Stars: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw

 

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Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Duran Duran “Hungry Like The Wolf”

[2] Marc Streitenfeld “Into The Fray”

[3] Marc Streitenfeld “Live or Die”

 

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I often wonder what Kevin Costner was thinking when choosing wolves as his dancing companions. Granted, they may be handsome creatures, but I’m not altogether sure they can be trusted. On their own, they seem agreeable enough and could even be mistaken for domestic dogs, but throw a few of their grey-coated buddies into the mix, and they have a tendency to act somewhat unruly. I guess it depends on where our paths cross as I would imagine they would keep their noses clean in suburbia. However, enter their jurisdiction without a compass and, chances are, you’ll be sorry you ever did. It’s not even about hunger as there are plenty of twigs and berries in the wilderness. The wolf just so happens to be a territorial creature and takes great exception to unsolicited intrusion.

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I learned this lesson from Adam Green’s chilly 2010 film Frozen in no uncertain terms as a trio of thrillseeking friends came unstuck when their ski lift powered down for end of season, leaving them stranded halfway up Mount Holliston and with the only way out apparently down. Frost bite is absolutely no joke and a few more hours in their icy throne would have dire ramifications so a simple leap of faith seems like the thinking man’s choice. That said, while the soft snow beneath will likely break their fall some, the pack of rowdy wolves sniffing about below are unlikely to be quite so forgiving. So it proved as, one by one, their escape plan was foiled in a manner even more harsh than the sub-zero conditions and I was no longer so fond of wolves. Moreover, I went straight out and auctioned my salopettes to the highest bidder.

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“A job at the end of the world. A salaried killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong, surrounded by my own. Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.”

 

Imagine my rapture then when John Ottway put in a bid. Not only did they fetch a tidy price but, when he revealed that he kills wolves for a living, I knew they were going to a good home. He and a small team of fellow oil drillers were about to embark on an expedition to Alaska and I was only too happy to release my snappy salopettes into his care. They were to travel by plane the very next morning and my only stipulation to the transaction was that he send me a postcard on his arrival. Funny, I haven’t heard from him since. Guess there aren’t many gift shops in the Canadian Rockies. Every day I check my post box and, every day, I come away with that same overwhelming feeling of disappointment. It’s a shame as he really seemed like a man of his word.

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Joe Carnahan’s The Grey appeared in 2011, just as its leading man Liam Neeson was riding the crest of after reinventing himself as an action hero, courtesy of Pierre Morel’s hugely profitable Taken in 2008. Based on the novel Ghost Walker by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, this provided him with another chance to further cement his reputation as the biggest badass in Tinseltown but the reason for its significance was far greater than simply to provide him with another opportunity to flex his biceps. Tragically, his wife of almost fifteen years, fellow thespian Natasha Richardson, had passed two years prior after succumbing to a severe head injury after a skiing accident of all things. Ironically, the character of John Ottway was also mourning the loss of his soul mate so this particular role would have been forgiven for appearing a little too close to home.

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“There’s not a second that goes by when I’m not thinking of you in some way. I want to see your face. Feel your hands in mine. Feel you against me. But I know that will never be. You left me, and I can’t get you back… I move like I imagine the damned do, cursed. I feel like it’s only a matter of time… I don’t know why I’m writing this, I don’t know what can come of it. I know I can’t get you back. I don’t know why this has happened to us. I feel like it’s me. Bad luck. Poison. I’ve stopped doing this world any real good.”

 

However, Neeson is the very epitome of consummate professional and his coping mechanism involved throwing himself wholeheartedly into his work. I can totally relate to his endeavor and have nothing but the utmost respect for him as I’m convinced it is what she would have wanted. While, on one hand, The Grey may have appeared too painful an undertaking to consider, on the other, it presented him with the chance to invest 100% of himself into the role (something that Neeson never has an issue with doing) and perhaps gain a little quiet closure in the process. Of course, while the film would inevitably be marketed as a one-man show to satisfy his leagues of devotees, it would be required to cut deeper than simply Neeson vs. Wolves and director Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The Fourth Kind) worked closely with Jeffers on adapting the screenplay to ensure that this was so.

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Our journey takes an unforeseen diversion once Ottway’s flight becomes compromised and crash lands in the middle of nowhere, wiping out the majority of its passengers in one fell swoop. After a quick limb check, the eight survivors (including one who is mortally wounded), regroup and take stock of their immediate surroundings.

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While the freezing conditions are an immediate concern, the group’s priority is far more ominous than head colds and chilblains. You see, they have unwittingly been deposited into the jurisdiction of a particularly inhospitable pack of grey wolves and, if there’s one thing that ruffles their coats, then that would be shared occupancy. This doesn’t bode at all well for the stragglers although Ottway has a fair idea of what threat lies ahead and promptly takes charge.

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Somewhere within the wolves’ fairly disparaging 300-mile hunting radius lies a den of sorts and their best bet for survival would be to remain on the move and hope that they aren’t heading towards the headquarters. Some of the men are reluctant to follow his lead but, after numbers are whittled down some, the majority soon agree that there is little left to lose and they head off on their pilgrimage.

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To start with, it feels a little like all other pawns will prove inconsequential as characterization is scant at the offset but this is wholly intentional as, much like the dwindling group in question, The Grey is looking to present its getting-to-know-you exercise gradually and wants its audience to share in the initial discombobulation of its personnel.

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It is the second act when things start to warm up as we learn a little more about each of the men and sit around a makeshift campfire sharing stories and making light of the thankless task ahead. As we break bread with Diaz (Frank Grillo), Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Talget (Dermot Mulroney) and Burke (Nonso Anozie) we begin to feel a real sense of camaraderie and, in no time, are as thick as thieves. This is critical to our investment as premier works such as John Carpenter’s The Thing resonated strongest by pitting together a group of same-sex protagonists and asking them to endure an onslaught that they hadn’t the vaguest idea how to best tackle. Marc Streitenfeld’s stunningly emotive score provides additional warmth, while Masanobu Takayanagi’s opulent cinematography reminds us of that the path ahead is unlikely to be bereft of pitfall.

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Neeson is extraordinarily good as Ottway, congenial in the extreme, secretly tormented by his own painful past, and prepared to puff out his chest the very moment that the alpha wolf comes sniffing, he is at the very top of his game here. However, he is more than happy to lend the limelight to his comrades and Mulroney’s kindly Talget, in particular, has us willing him on every torturous step of the way.

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“I don’t walk through this world with fear in my heart.”

 

If Ottway has a crumb of consolation to keep the wolves from the door as it were, then the fact that his personal wallet collection is growing by the hour is about all she wrote and, if he ever makes it back to civilization in one piece, he’ll be able to have a fair few drinks on his fallen compadres. However, if there is one thing that wolves are a dab hand with, then the good old-fashioned pincer movement is second only to their stubborn pursuit of their prey and The Grey isn’t looking to offer clear-cut solution.

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“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.”

 

Speaking of pincer movement, Carnahan’s film performs precisely that on our senses as we never really see the sucker punch coming. Said blow comes in the form of our undivided attention as, 117 minutes later, we are left feeling as though we too have just battled the elements and, what we weren’t perhaps expecting, was that The Grey would focus far more on heart than body mass. It is this that sets it apart from its slam-bang and thank you ma’am competition and, thanks to committed performances from all involved, excellent set-pieces, and a refusal to let us rest on our laurels for a solitary second throughout, Ottway can add another wallet to his fast-growing collection.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: With usual suspects Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger on FX duties, you could be forgiven for expecting to be more than catered for with regards to grue and the wolves are certainly decisive in their attacks. That said, there simply isn’t time to ogle over torn asunder body parts with a harsh blizzard approaching and any damage inflicted is revealed fleetingly. I’m all for a dash of vivisectionist splatter but, in the case of The Grey, it couldn’t be more surplus to requirements.

 

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