Director: Joe Carnahan
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Starring Liam Neeson
Synopsis is here
Joe Carnaham is a director I have time for but find myself at a loss with his recent movies. I missed his debut feature Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane but found his second feature Narc immensely enjoyable. The A Team and Smoking Aces are high energy distraction pieces that do what they're meant to do and nothing more, but I always have the feeling that they could have been more memorable. Right now, I cannot for the life me tell you anything that happened in those films.
For me I get the feeling that with those films, that while the budget got bigger, the focus seemed to sway slightly. So much "stuff" had to be packed into Aces and A Team, that when it starts spewing out, you don't know what to put your attention. The A Team; with it's nostalgia monkey on it's back, reminded me why I enjoyed The Losers more. While Aces, was a mass ensemble piece that had a lot of names in the cast, but didn't spend any real time with them. A frustration as when Carnaham does allow his characters to breathe (Narc) he gets something out of them. The final aspects of Smoking Aces featuring Ryan Reynolds' character hint at something the film never really looked at wanting to achieve.
With that in mind we come to The Grey, a pared down nature action thriller; which, could have been leaner, but doesn't pull back with it's punches. Canaham's film (which at times borrow tropes from the horror genre) works because it cares about the plight at hand as opposed to filling the feature with trivial flash.
Such a stripping of gimmicky reminds us that Carnaham is an appealing director visually. He and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi kept me on my toes with the stark beauty of the Alaskan backdrop. they capture the near hopelessness that these men will face. When bad things happen (and they do, often) Carnahams camera doesn't look away, instead it lingers on the pain unflinchingly. A scene featuring Neeson giving clam to a dying moments after the plane crash is grim and uncompromising. At times I found the film difficult to watch, in the way a good horror film should be.
However, other times the film is difficult to watch because of haphazard editing. Action sequences featuring The Greys main threat; the wolves, are choppy, awkward and hard to decipher. in fact those scenes (while featuring some effect jump scares) are really mangled close lumps of flesh and cgi. The film works better when the focal point is firmly placed on the men, and the clam before the storm. The mirrored balance of the gang of rouges and the animal hunters that trail them bring out some of the best moments of the film.
The characters involved aren't complex at all but it's the actors that are cast that give them the humanity that's needed. We are told that these men are men that are unfit for mankind. To drop them in such extreme conditions, we witness what spurs them on and what drives them. Small, tender things, many stemming from their relationships with women or family. That their alpha male machismo is not only threatened by such forces of nature but asks them to relate back to such softer moments, hint at the difficult contradictions of masculinity that Narc probed at times. Liam Neeson; a man whose been kicking ass and taking names since 1990 (Darkman) brings the grounded leadership and awareness that such a role needs, while Frank Grillo provides sufficient conflict in the human ranks.
I'm not the best when it comes to Man vs Nature features. In fact my copy of Southern Comfort is still in my cupboard unwrapped, I haven't seen Deliverance in years and The River Wild has never pipped my interests. But The Grey is the perfect type of feature to see out a chilly January. Canaham's retreat back to what made him a worthwhile prospect, that human aspect, makes us want to stand by these characters through the harshness of the terrain in front of them.