Tuesday 31 January 2012

The Grey - The Thin Grey Line

Plot: The survivors of a plane crash in Alaska face an even deadlier situation when, stuck in the wild and far away from civilisation, they find themselves hunted by a pack of hungry grey wolves.

The magic of cinema will never cease to amaze me. In appearance, The Grey looked like a run of the mill survival/actioner that I could not muster any kind of enthusiasm for. Yet some great reviews hinted that there was a lot more to it and how right they were, this turned out to be a surprise and the first great film of 2012, with surprising depth and some unexpected philosophical undertones.

Liam Neeson, in one of his finest performances in years, plays Ottway, a sniper hired to protect the team of an oil rig station in Alaska from the beasts of the wild. He is a lonely, broken man longing for his lost girl-friend, stuck in the middle of nowhere and seemingly struggling to even find a reason to go on. The slow-paced opening scenes impress with their melancholic tone, and Ottway's soul-searching voiceover make it very clear that this is not going to be the mindless B-movie you might expect.

As the team embarks on their doomed flight home, I must warn nervous flyers than the plane crash that ensues is horrifying, expertly filmed from the point of view of the passengers, perfectly portraying their confusion and fear, with some remarkable sound effects that meant that even shutting your eyes will not be much help! The sight of Liam Neeson strapped to his seat, upside down with the plane's cabin half ripped open as it is rapidly approaching the ground is not one I will forget in a hurry!

The film is then slightly let down by a more conventional middle act, with a lot of alpha male rivalry taking place and some rather stereotyped situations and dialogues. As Ottway emerges as a natural leader, I was counting the minutes until somebody would come up with this immortal line: "Who put you in charge?" And it happened! That is not to say that the film is not efficient in those scenes, with the tension never letting go.

While the structure of a group of survivors being picked one by one by a mainly unseen presence is the stapple of horror films, in here, a lot of care has been taken however so that each death does not seem too laboured and conveniently placed as a plot device. They happen randomly and unexpectedly, and it is not quite the characters you expect who get killed first.

The wolves are not vilified, they are deadly and at times terrifying creatures, but this is their domain and they are merely following their instinct for survival, it is indeed the humans who are here completely out of place. There is even a touching pre-crash scene as Liam Neeson, having mortally wounded a wolf who was about to attack his team near the rig, accompanies him to his death, witnessing his last breath.

It has to be said that director Joe Carnahan (Narc but also sadly The A-Team) has a knack to film the beautiful yet unforgiving surroundings around them, helped with a truly incredible sound design. We often talk about 3D being immersive but we forget how important sound effects are, and so much care has been given here, being the blustering blizzard, the ominous crack of a twig in the night, or the aforementioned and terrifying plane crash.

And then The Grey picks up again in its impressive third act, as it becomes clearer for the dwindling survivors that their fate is becomes increasingly desperate and bleak, having to face not only their fanged enemies but also their own demons, being forced to reflect on their own lives and what awaits them if they ever make it out. The nature around them is not so much hostile as indifferent, and as Ottway puts it, they do not belong here, which can be seen as a metaphor for their own situation in society, as a bunch of unwanted outcasts trying to find their place and a reason to live.

In these scenes as well as the opening scenes, I nearly saw some echoes of Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, with a beautiful yet dangerous nature becoming the playground for their inner demons and soul searching.

Ultimately, this is a film about not so much surviving as finding a reason to even want to live. Some reviewers have lamented the downbeat and ambiguous open ending but while this might be true from a strictly narrative point of view, it certainly is not from a psychological one, with the characters having fully reached the end of a mental journey and what actually happens next does not matter that much. Do not make the same mistake as I did however, make sure you stay for a post-credits scene, which, having since found out what happens in it, brings in its own ambiguity.

The Grey is out in cinemas in the US and UK.

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