I Dug It More Than You: “The Grey” Edition

Have you seen 2012’s The Grey? My guess is that you haven’t, but for those not sure, maybe this’ll help jog your memory:

Yeah, it’s the one with Liam Neeson and the wolves.

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If you did see it, I’m going to assume that you probably didn’t like it. Because that seems to be the standard answer–most of those I’ve queried have given me some variation on “Actually…I though it sucked.”

Now, had they (you) been referring to another of Neeson’s recent forays into the action-adventure genre–B-movie crap such as Taken 1, 2 & 3, Unknown and The A-Team, crap that, although successful in gilding Neeson’s billfold (he reportedly was paid $20MM for Taken’s odiferous concluding chapter) has done nothing for his reputation or actorly chops–then maybe I would’ve agreed. But The Grey isn’t like that aforementioned dreck; it’s a cut far above. And so I humbly assert that you are dead wrong when you say it stunk. Why? Well, let me explain.

But first, a broad-stroked synopsis:

John Ottway (Neeson), a sharpshooter charged with protecting the roughnecks working a remote northern-Alaskan oil refinery from the occasional marauding wolf, survives, along with six others, a plane crash while flying towards civilization (Anchorage, perhaps?) for some R&R.

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Stranded in the wilds, clueless as to whether anyone knows their location and without weapons (Ottway’s gun was destroyed in the crash), the seven bunk down for the night in the destroyed 737 fuselage, but not before running off a wolf that had been snacking on an unfortunate flight attendant. It seems a pack has been scoping out the crash site:

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The survivors wake the next morning to find their numbers reduced by one–the wolves have killed and partially consumed Hernandez, the unlucky guy who’d drawn late-night watch duty. Ottway, versed in the habits of wolves, wonders if they haven’t crashed within the pack’s hunting ground, thus sending them plummeting down the food chain. In hopes of keeping themselves off the luncheon menu, the group decides to abandon the bloody crash site and take refuge in a tree line in the distance. Before they leave they gather as many wallets of the crash victims as possible “for the families.”

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In no time a survivor named Flannery, straggling from exhaustion, is set upon by wolves. Of the five who make it to the tree line, another wakes up dead from hypoxia. Three of the four remaining survivors succumb, in short order, to 1) a fall from a great height, 2) a wolf attack and 3) a drowning. Only Neeson’s John Ottway remains, the Alpha of his pack if you will. As for what happens next, all I can say without ruining things is that it involves an existential crisis, a bunch of wallets placed in the snow in the shape of the Christian cross and a handful of broken airplane-sized liquor bottles. You’ll just have to watch the movie, I guess.

Anyway, The Grey opened to generally good notices and acceptable box office returns in late January, traditionally a month in which studios offload their garbage. (The Grey being an exception to that rule, of course.) Co-written and directed by the talented Joe Carnahan, this film, along with his well-received 2002 crime thriller Narc, almost makes up for the fact that, back in 2010, he co-wrote and directed the stupid, unnecessary big-screen adaptation of the stupid, unnecessary 80s TV series The A-Team.

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Now, on to my reasons for greatly admiring The Grey.

An Unexpected Opening

As the movie begins, Ottway is portrayed as a man at the end of his rope. In voice over, as he walks the frozen grounds of the refinery at night, rifle slung over his shoulder, Ottway laments that he, like all of the other on-site workers (“Ex-cons, fugitive, drifters, assholes…”) are unfit for anything but “…a job at the end of the world.” Entering the refinery’s raucous R&R facility, he moves towards the bar, the sounds of a fresh brawl, with its accompanying taunts, cackles and shattering glass, slowly fading into silence. And then, with just a shimmer of Marc Streitenfeld’s excellent score, we’re back inside Ottway’s head as he remembers a woman (his wife, we’re later able to ascertain via a wedding photo) lying next to him in a warm, sunlit bed.

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“There’s not a second goes by when I’m not thinking about you in some way,” he says, his voice over clearly distressed. “I want to see your face, feel your hands in mine, feel you against me. 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. And I feel it’s only a matter of time.”

From the bar we cut to Ottway in his room, those internal musings and regrets in voice over revealed to be part of a letter he’s composing, in tears. Another cut and we’re watching him, in daylight, shoot a wolf who charged some workers. He goes to the animal and, setting a hand gently on its heaving chest, comforts it as it dies.

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Back in his room, still at the letter, he writes, “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. And I’ve stopped doing the world any real good.” He sets down the pen, his mind’s eye picturing a boy pointing to something framed on a wall. He picks up the pen and writes, “Once more into the fray…” We cut to him outside, at night, down on one knee. “Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.” He sets the barrel of his rifle into his mouth. Before he can pull the trigger, though, he hears the howl of a wolf in the distance and, for reasons unexplained, decides not to kill himself. “Live and die on this day…” he says in voice over. “Live and die on this day…”

The heck?

Wasn’t this flick supposed to be two hours of Neeson meting out “Taken”-like beatdowns on bunch of rabid wolves? I could’ve sworn that’s how it’d been sold to me in all those TV spots and previews. What’s all this existential nonsense? Could it be that Carnahan has something more up his sleeve than a little ass-kicking? Fine with me, I guess. Fine, too, how the first seven minutes, via the masterful use of cross-cutting, nimbly imparts just enough information about Neeson’s character to pique our interest and, possibly, empathy, but not so much as to cross the line into clunky exposition. What’s up with Ottway’s wife? How’d he lose her? Where’s she gone? Why is he toying with killing himself? Why doesn’t he pull the trigger? Who’s that kid in the flashback? What’s with all that “into the fray” nonsense?

The sequence, artfully directed, acted, shot, edited and scored, makes it clear right off the bat that we’re in for an a-typical action-adventure movie, one with a more philosophical bent, perhaps.

The Plane Crash

Put me in a plane with even the slightest bit of turbulence and my hands grab for the seat dividers so hard my knuckles go white. In the fantasy world of the movies, though? Let just say I’m a sucker for midair chaos. I’ve seen plenty of good crashes over the years, scenes in which the plane disintegrates midair (Always, Fight Club), or ditches into the ocean (Airport ’77, Air Force One), or collides with a mountain or some type of wildlife (Alive, The Edge). For my money, though, the best way to elevate (oof!) a plane disaster from “pretty cool” to “holy crap was that amazing!” involves limiting the audience’s point of view. Because, by staying within the claustrophobic confines of the fuselage, and by avoiding cuts outside the airplane, cuts that may reveal why things are suddenly up for grabs, we, the audience, get a much better sense of the passengers’ confusion, dread and terror: Are we going to crash? How soon? Will it hurt? Why me?

The first time I recall seeing a crash executed with a limited POV was upon viewing Peter Weir’s 1993 film Fearless, a fictionalized account of the famous hydraulic failure to United Airlines Flight 232 and the plane’s subsequent disintegration in a corn field just off a runway at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa. Six years later, David Fincher did a similarly fine job in Fight Club, although the plane carrying Edward Norton broke apart midair. And it turned out to be a fantasy sequence, which probably removes it from consideration. If one seeks the pièce de résistance of limited POV plane disasters, however, one needs to look no further than director Robert Zemeckis’ depiction of a FedEx transport going down in the South Pacific in 2000’s Cast Away.

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Hold fast, Tom!

That is, until The Grey.

One has to wonder if Carnahan studied the Fearless and Cast Away crashes as inspiration for his depiction. This certainly wouldn’t be without precedent. Whenever an artist makes a stylistic breakthough others are sure to follow. Just look at how the majority of combat scenes filmed since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan borrow shamelessly from the bag of tricks developed by Steven Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kamiński.

Anyway, regarding the crash in The Grey (available below), assuming you decide to watch (aviophobics need not apply), check out how subtly, yet ominously, Carnahan begins the proceedings: a distortion in the cabin monitor displaying the plane’s location, a slow dolly down the aisle revealing breath condensing above the passengers’ heads, the slightest abnormal hum coming from the engines. Then a moment of total silence as Ottway dreams about his wife in that warm, sunlit bed again. Then…BAM! And from here on out the sound design becomes just as important as Carnahan’s visual composition in terms of communicating terror: engines scream as they fight for lift, anxious passengers bombard the flight attendant with questions and then, suddenly, a low-end grumble from the plane’s bowels as something terrible happens to its mechanical systems. Things are not looking good for our roughnecks:

I swear, if you’re hands aren’t clammy after watching that, even on a computer with crappy sound (which is no way to watch a movie, a subject I plan to tackle in future posts), then you are one unflappable SOB.

The Death of Luke Lewenden

I’m not ruining anything by discussing the untimely expiration of Luke Lewenden (James Badge Dale). We barely get to meet the guy–he’s only glimpsed shooting the shit with others before the plane goes down. So credit Carnahan’s direction, Streitenfeld’s score and Neeson’s and Dale’s acting for delivering a scene that still packs an emotional wallop. In broad strokes, once Neeson, who’d been thrown a distance from the crash, makes his way back to the broken fuselage, he finds the other survivors gathered around Lewenden, who has suffered what appears to be a gaping chest wound. Muttering that he doesn’t feel right, a confused, terrified Lewenden asks Ottway what’s happening to him. At a glance Ottway knows the man is finished, but instead of giving him false hope by saying that everything will be OK, he shushes Lewenden and then drops this bomb:

“Listen…listen…you’re going to die. That’s what’s happening.”

This wasn’t what Lewenden was hoping to hear. “Wait, wait, wait,” he mutters, justifiably agitated. “Hold on, hold on.”

Neeson, in that rough but dulcet Irish brogue of his, again calms the mortally wounded man. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he says. “Look at me…look at me. Keep looking at me. It’s alright, keep looking at me. It’s alright. It’ll slide over you. It’ll start to feel warm. Let it move over you…it’s alright. Let your thoughts go…all the good things. All the good thing, yeah? Who do you love? Who do you love, Luke?”

“My girl Rosie,” says Lewenden.

“She your daughter?”

“She’s six,” Lewenden whispers, fading.

“Let her take you then.”

Here’s how it plays:

Like the opening, we’re confronted with yet another expectation-buster, a beautiful scene involving a group of men–roughneck tough guys no less–helping one of their own make peace with his death, ensuring that his last few moments aren’t filled with horror, but rather acceptance and calm reflection. Powerful stuff.

Man v. Nature/Universe and Spirituality

Like cinematic plane crashes, I’m a sucker for the notion of man against Nature.

Be it onscreen, on page or on canvas, give me some poor, isolated slob exposed to the great outdoors, fighting for survival, and I’m hooked:

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Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of Medusa”

Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream”

The drama is not only inherent, but palpable–how can something so small have any chance against something so big? Pushed to extremes, we often see the protagonists curse the sky for what appears to be celestial malevolence.

Which always brings me back to Stephen Crane’s famous 1897 short story, The Open Boat. You remember that one, don’t you? It’s where a group of men struggle to survive in a lifeboat after their steamer sinks.

Or were you one of those mopes who blew off high-school English?

Anyway, the survivors, facing one crisis after another, can’t resist cursing the ocean and the wind and the waves for seemingly being out to get them. Later, though, one of the characters, the correspondent, has an epiphany: Any belief in Nature’s malevolence is misplaced. In fact, Nature couldn’t give two shits one way or another about their well-being. “She did not seem cruel to him then,” Crane writes, “nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.”

This idea of indifference has relevance in the spiritual realm, too. Swap God for Nature and some uncomfortable question arise. Is the fact that the plane crash survivors are suffering reflective of the fact that there no God (because what beneficent deity would let someone suffer?) and therefore we’re on our own? Or is it that, although He exists, God is one of those “help those who help themselves” kind of guys. So quite whining, pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make a go of it. Either way it seems futile to ask Him for help, which touches on the debate on faith the survivors have not long after reaching the tree line and setting up camp:

“I keep sitting here thinking,” says Jerome Talget (Dermot Mulroney). “Even with all this stuff going on [being chased by killer wolves], we hit the ground at 400 miles per hour, and we made it. Why would we go through something like that, that crash, if it wasn’t meant to be, or…ordained?”

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To which John Diaz (Frank Grillo), the group’s resident hothead, says, “By who? The Almighty? That fucking fairy tale? How about good old-fashioned blind luck? Flannery survived that crash, so did Hernandez. Didn’t matter. [Both were later taken by wolves.] Fate doesn’t give a fuck. Dead is dead. Where do you think those boys are now? Up in heaven? Getting fit for wings? No, I’ll tell you where they are; they’re not, that’s where. They’re nowhere. They’re gone.”

Talget: “I don’t believe that.”

Ottway then chimes in. “I do. I wish I didn’t. I really wish I could believe in that stuff.” He pauses to look around. “This is real…the cold.” He exhales. “That’s real, the air in my lungs. Those bastards are out there in the dark stalking us. It’s this world that I’m worried about, not the next.”

Talget: “What about your faith?”

Ottway: “What about it?”

Target: “It’s important.”

But Ottway isn’t buying. Later, though, after failing to save a man from drowning, he drops exhausted to the river’s bank and, looking at the sky, looking towards the God he doesn’t believe in, says, “Do something. Do something. You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker.”

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“Do something!” he screams. “Come on, prove it! Fuck faith, earn it! Show me something real! I need it now, not later, now! Show me and I’ll believe in you till the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you. I’m calling on you!” He pauses and then, after a beat, says, “Fuck it. I’ll do it myself. I’ll do it myself.”

Is it that God’s not there? Or does God help those who help themselves?

Ottway walks on, how long we don’t know. Eventually he has to stop, the cold and exhaustion too much to bear. He crouches down and, getting out the wallets, looks through each, at pictures of the loved ones left behind.

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He sets them one-by-one on the ground, the pile soon forming a cross. He takes out the note he’d written to his wife and, after reading it, presses it between his hands as if in prayer. The end is nigh. Which begs the question: is Ottway recovering some of his lost faith? After all, there are no atheists in foxholes.

Neeson performance 

The Grey is, if nothing else, is a meditation on mortality. And so who better to play Ottway that Liam Neeson? It’s no secret that his wife, Natasha Richardson, died just a couple years before filming from injuries she sustained after taking a minor fall while skiing. And this tragedy seems to weigh heavily on Neeson performance throughout. The pain’s written all over his face; it’s in his eyes.

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And then there’s the dialogue, which has so much more resonance coming from Neeson:

“There’s not a second goes by when I’m not thinking about you in some way. I want to see your face, feel your hands in mine, feel you against me. 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. And I feel it’s only a matter of time. 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. And I’ve stopped doing the world any real good.”

He’s not just speaking lines when he talks of grief, or calms that dying man, or wrestles with faith. He’s been through all of it. His face is all sadness, all loss.

Wrapping up

Phew. Almost 3,000 words on a movie that, for all intents and purposes, is a $25MM reworking of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. What am I thinking? And I only touched on a few of the things I really liked about the flick. I could go on longer about the cinematography, the performers other than Neeson, other memorable scenes. But enough’s enough. In a nutshell, I think, although a downer, The Grey is skillfully executed and has much to say. Check it out and decide for yourself.

Anyway…lest you think I’ve become too morose, or, worse, gasbaggy, let me sign off with one of my favorite scenes from the flick, a tough-guy confrontation between Ottway and Diaz (excuse the weak video):

Maybe it’s just me but I can’t imagine anyone else in the universe better suited than Liam Neeson to deliver a line like, “I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds! And you’re going to swallow a lot of blood for a fookin’ billfold!”

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