Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Grey - Theatrical Review


Release Date: January 27, 2012

I f@#king love movies like this! Survivalist stories with a group of strangers fighting to live comprise a good number of my favorite films and The Grey looked to be a fine addition to the group and despite an aggrivating ad campaign it didn't disappoint.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 11:30 am January 29, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 57 min
Studio: Open Road Films

Loves: Liam Neeson, Man vs. Nature, survival movies
Likes: Dermot Mulroney
Neutral: That ending
Hates: Everything about that damn trailer
Fact: The title comes from that grey area between life and death

Given the fact that we are in the January dumping grounds it is very easy to give a film like The Grey a gut reaction positive review without much thought. What I would like to do here is give my general impressions on why the film worked for me but there is something I need to get out of the way first. You see, I liked the movie, quite a lot actually but the experience was nearly ruined by whom ever it was responsible for the films marketing campaign. Other than a key moment depicted in the trailer this film is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to see a story about a disparate group of strangers fighting to survive amidst some unruly conditions. I wanted to see a story about how these strangers learn to work together and support one another against all the odds set against them. The Grey delivers that and actually went above and beyond the call of duty in some respects but I'll be damned if that trailer didn't work its way into my subconscious and get me ready for something that was never meant to be.

John Ottoway (Liam Neeson) is stuck working at the ass end of the world at an Alaskan oil facility. His job is to protect the workers (who are mostly comprised of ex-cons and loner types) from the ever present threat of random wolf attacks. Once his job is done he and the workers he protects find themselves on a one way trip back home on the earliest flight. But due to some unforeseen (and unknown) complications their plane crashes in the middle of a frozen wasteland. Ottoway and a handful of other survivors work quickly to secure themselves and prepare to wait for some sort of rescue. However their plans are interrupted once it is discovered that their plane crashed right in the territory which has been laid claimed by one of the most vicious and blood thirsty pack of wolves you are ever likely to see. Their fight for survival only begins after the plane crash as the wolves begin to systematically wipe them out one by one as they attempt to survive the harsh winter and straddle that fine line between life and death, also known as The Grey.

John Ottoway's skills will come into great use soon enough.

OK, I'm gonna go on a bit of a tangent here. I want to state for the record that while what I am about to bitch about did bother me, it in no way impacted my feelings on the film itself. So fair warning for anyone out there as what I am about to say might actually spoil the film for you. However, if you have seen the trailer then you might have already unwittingly had the film ruined for you so I might actually be doing you a favor here by giving you this heads up. First I would like to say that I am sick and tired of movie studios trying to make every single film starring Liam Neeson appear to be the next Taken. I like to see the man kick ass just as much as the next guy but these fabrications need to end. Last year it happened when Unknown was released and while that film shared a fair number of things with Taken it was still very misleading by promoting the film as some sort of revenge thriller. But nothing compares to what they have done with the marketing campaign behind The Grey. They tried to pull the same bullshit and they couldn't have picked a worse film (thematically speaking) to try that with.

I would like to get the most obvious lie out of the way first, at no point during this film does Liam Neeson turn into a bad ass and start punching wolves. That final scene in that trailer where we see Neeson get ready to deliver a beat down on a wolf is there only to create an illusion of what they (the movie studio) wanted us to think the movie was about so as to get the action junkie crowd interested. This is not some kind of clever misdirection where they are pointing us in one direction only to have the actual film be something unexpected and brilliant (although that did happen for me). My favorite go-to example is what happened with Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds where the film was promoted as some kind of Dirty Dozen-esque war film and when audiences finally sat down and watched it they got something that was nothing like that trailer promised but also something much better than what they thought they were going to get in the first place. With The Grey it almost seems malicious to me with how they led me into believing this was going to be Liam Neeson in yet another ass kicking role. While I do believe the finished product is much better than the premise that trailer was selling, it still led me down a path of thinking that ultimately disappointed me.

To say the weather conditions are harsh would be a severe understatement.

I would like to reiterate that none of that did any sort of permanent damage as far as my feelings towards the film itself. I just want this charade to end, I have had enough. Taken was a great movie but its lasting effects on the career of Liam Neeson has become a double edged sword in some respects. While it has provided him with a level of stardom beyond any he has had before it has also begun to taint his other works. But it isn't his fault nor the filmmakers he works with, I put the blame squarely on the suits, the guys responsible for promoting the film. I understand they want to make as much money as they can and will use any methods they deem necessary but when you have a film like The Grey, which has so many other merits they could have used beyond selling it as something it isn't, well...that just seems kind of like an asshole move on their part. Would it have been so wrong to promote the film as a survival movie instead of an action movie? Then when you add in the fact that in order to sell this lie they decided to make not only the teaser trailer and the final trailer end with the final moments of the film (because other than the final moment there was no real action to use) but they went ahead and constructed all the posters and ads for the film around THE LAST IMAGE WE SEE IN THE MOVIE. What were they thinking?

The lesson to be learned from that rant you just labored through is that when you go to see The Grey (which I suggest you do), don't let the trailer make you form any early opinions as what to expect from it. It is not an action movie, you won't see men going toe to toe with a pack of wolves but what you will get is one of the most harrowing and intense man against nature films you have ever seen. This is a very lean movie, it doesn't waste time getting to where it needs to go. While I appreciated the few early moments we have with Neeson at the outset, what I love most about this film is how it takes a no holds barred approach to this very common scenario of a group of people isolated and cut off from the world and how they must learn to work together in order to survive. But it isn't satisfied with just a story about some plane crash survivors braving the treacherous Alaskan landscape, oh no. They went ahead and threw in another element of danger that just ratchets up the intensity ten fold. That extra element is of course a pack of wolves that stalk our survivors from the minute they crash to the final moments of the film. I won't even try to sugar coat this one, this is one of the most grim and foreboding films about mans struggle to survive I have ever seen and you will most likely not care for where it is headed.

They must all stand together or die alone.

This is the first film about survival of the fittest that I have ever seen where it goes places that most likely won't win very many repeat viewings. There are two stars responsible for making the whole affair work though. Liam Neeson as the man with the plan, the guy that knows what the group has to do to survive. Neeson has always commanded the screen whenever he finds himself in the role of a leader. Watching him bark out statistics and seeing how he orders the men around as they race to build a fire so they won't freeze to death feels completely authentic in a way only he can provide. The other star of the film is surprisingly not the wolves or the other characters but the environment itself. It is as integral to the sense of dread and hopelessness that pervades over the film as those lethal killing machines chasing them down. This is not a happy movie, these guys are not in a happy place and the film conveys the unrelenting harshness of their surroundings perfectly with an appropriately bleak atmosphere.

Despite my little rant a couple paragraphs back about how I went into the film with certain expectations and had them squashed, I am fairly happy that this wasn't the movie those ads made it out to be. The last thing we needed was an action movie about a group of guys who fight wolves. Two of my favorite films about survival in the wilderness is the true story of downed airplane and its survivors in 1993's Alive (which this film actually references at one point) and one of the best man versus animal movies of all time, 1997's The Edge. Director Joe Carnahan expertly siphoned the best parts of those films and assembled them here into something uniquely different while also feeling very familiar. He trimmed the fat from both those other films, gone are the countless scenes about trying to be rescued as are any unnecessary character beats. We get the same scenarios from those films but it is all served up in a very lean and mean manner. The film has a clear goal and focus, we are with these guys as they are on the run for their lives. Nothing else matters, they aren't busy making fires for rescue helicopters, they aren't hunting for dinner and they definitely aren't sitting around waiting to be rescued. Why? Because if they do any of that then their asses are gonna get eaten.

The wolves make sure to never let them rest for very long.

In a very sly maneuver, Carnahan has given us what on the surface appears to be your standard survival story but in retrospect this is a very character driven style of horror film. It's very subtle when the shift happens, so much so that I don't think most people will even consciously think about it until well after the film is over. The horror doesn't come from blood and guts (although there is plenty of that) but from the high level of despair the characters are constantly in and their solitude from anyone or thing that can help them which in turn creates a very palable amount of tension. Make no mistake about it, this is a horror film and a very good one at that. From the moment that plane hits the ground these guys are in a world of hurt, they have just survived a devastating crash, are in the middle of nowhere, caught in a constant onslaught of harsh weather conditions and have almost a zero chance of being rescued. Then when you add these blood thirsty wolves into the mix it becomes increasingly agonizing watching these men consistently fight against the odds for their lives as they are in constant threat of being ripped apart. There comes a point where you (and they) believe the ones that died in the crash were the actual lucky ones and the ones that lived were those that are cursed.

Now you might be thinking at this point, how on Earth can a pack of wolves be such a huge threat to seven grown adult men? I had the same thought actually, cause usually wolves are depicted as some sort of medium sized dog that is more of a nuance than anything else. I don't have any idea how accurate of a picture this film paints of wolves but these things are some of the most vicious predators I have seen in a movie ever. They hunt in packs, appear to be the size of a small bear and are extremely cunning. The film does a great job of letting us know how much of a threat they really are when one attacks a survivor early on and it takes five men just to beat the dam thing off the guy. The film treats them like monsters in the night, they prowl around our survivors looking for any opportunity to strike and never let up no matter how far they try to run. I must also point out the superb sound design and mixing as well because whenever those wolves attacked I could feel every bite and snarl like I was right there with them. I highly suggest you see this movie in a theater with a good quality audio set up.

Tell me that doesn't look like a horror movie?

Somehow I have made it this far without ever really talking about the characters which isn't meant to devalue their importance, it's just that while they are essential to making the film work they are also very difficult to talk about without giving away any key moments in the film. I will say that I liked all of them, with a lone exception during the first half of the film there wasn't a single one of them that I wanted to see die. The film did a bang up job giving us a core group of guys that were easy enough to relate to and get invested in. They of course all have your stereotypical character traits, you got Ottoway as the leader who decides what the group does and doesn't do, Flannery (Joe Anderson) is the guy who does everything Ottoway says without question, Diaz (Frank Grillo) is the guy who constantly questions every single thing Ottoway tells them to do, Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) is the guy who gets along with everyone, Talget (Dermot Mulroney) is the somewhat religious guy who just wants to get back home to his little girl, Burke (Nonso Anozie) is the strong and silent type and so on.

What made all those characters work were the actors. Aside from Liam Neeson who doesn't know how to give a bad performance, I was mostly impressed with all these guys. Mulroney is a very capable actor and although he isn't given much to do he still never ceases to be a very engaging screen presence. Everyone else was more than adequate given their limited development but I was kind of impressed by Frank Grillo as Diaz. At first I wanted to hit the guy and shut him up but as the film progressed he not only changed into a more likable fellow but we also start to see that maybe he wasn't as stupid as he made himself out to be. All in all they worked well together and had a great group dynamic to them. You actually wanted to see make it out alive which is the one thing any movie of this type needs to nail or else the whole thing falls apart.

Man versus nature, who will win out?

I do want to bring up a couple of negatives I had towards the film, none of which have anything to do with that misleading trailer. First there are the wolves themselves which from a distance or shrouded in darkness look just fine. However, when we start to get better glimpses of them it becomes readily apparent that these are CGI creations and not real wolves. This is both sad and disappointing, especially considering a film like The Edge (made over 15 years ago!) featured a man eating bear and had ZERO computer enhancements, and it was all the better for it. Why couldn't they get real wolves? I understand the complexities of some of the scenes but that doesn't excuse the filmmakers from this very lazy approach. The real crime is that every so often I got pulled out of the moment because of this decision to go mostly CG. It's a shame that the film got so much else right with the characters and environment but skimped on something that seems ridiculously easy in comparison. The logic of the film was fairly sound save for one very crucial part where they begin to formulate a plan of attack which goes nowhere. It doesn't go nowhere because it didn't work, it goes nowhere because the film inexplicably abandons it without one reason as to why. While it was rather annoying to say the least it didn't really hurt the film, it was just strange how the men start to prepare to defend themselves and the next scene they are running away again.

Then there is the ending. Which I don't really have a problem with exactly but it still left me strangely dissatisfied. I won't go into details about what happens but I can see a lot of people feeling somewhat cheated by the outcome. It's not so much a problem with what was shown to us but more about what wasn't shown. It's not even that I didn't feel the impact of what was happening (or happened) up to that point cause there is one particular moment that just hit me like a ton of bricks during a moment of reflection that was pitch perfect and helped kind of sum up everything we had just witnessed and experienced with this group of guys we got to know and care about. My issue with it has to do with the lack of a satisfactory emotional release, we just finished watching these guys go through all kinds of hell and our pay off is a cut to black? It's not that I needed a more upbeat ending because I wouldn't have had the film end any other way, it's that I had all this built up rage that was never given a proper emotional outlet. I guess perhaps that was the reaction the filmmakers were looking for, to get us so emotionally wrapped up in the lives of these guys that we just wanted them to have some sort of victory no matter how small it was. That still doesn't change the fact that it felt somewhat anti-climatic.

If you haven't been able to tell yet I wasn't quite as prepared for the gut punch the film delivers as I thought I was. This is some bold filmmaking and by that I mean it isn't afraid to alienate its audience by being as raw and unforgiving as possible. It doesn't paint us some sort of bullshit picture of what your typical Hollywood thriller does. If a plane full of people were to crash land in a remote part of Alaska and there were a handful of survivors that found themselves being stalking by a pack of man eating wolves, I can kind of see it going down like it does here. Which is to say it doesn't end too well for most of them and when certain characters do meet their end it isn't very pleasant. The film's many successes lie in its varied and likable cast as well as the ferocious creatures stalking them in a what first looks to be a beautiful landscape but turns truly frightening the longer they are trapped there. I don't think this film will have much of a wide appeal but that is to be expected given the type of film it is. I thought it provided one of the most invigorating and intense survival film experiences I have ever seen and despite some minor complaints it succeeds admirably at what it sets out to do. I suggest that you...




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