While the terrifying depiction of the wolves in 'The Grey' has been the centre of the praise directed toward this film, for me it’s Carnahan’s ability to capture the harshness of the north with a kind of intensity rarely equalled. It’s certainly not the best Arctic survivalist film. I might give the trophy to Mikael Kalatozov’s 'Letter Never Sent', but Carnahan manages to play into the expectations of this sub-genre and deliver a powerful and reflective adventure film with balls and pathos.
The Grey (2012) dir., Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
By Alan Bacchus
This is one of the benchmark stops along the way for Liam Neeson’s monumentally unlikely career turn as a legitimate action hero. Obviously, it was Taken that turned him into an ass-kicking leading man, and here he’s much the same but with a tortured soul. He’s John Ottoway, an outdoorsman contracted by an Alaskan oil company as security of sorts against the dangerous wolves which prowl the landscape. Ottoway’s a man of few words, a man of action but with sad eyes which hide a painful past. Dreamy flashbacks to encounters with his wife suggest she’s dead, or she’s left him, which is perhaps why he’s now off the grid hunting wolves.
His next assignment goes awry when he and his convoy of drillers become stranded after a plane crash in the far north. With civilization far, far away, it’s that familiar set up, a group of men against the wild, conflicts oscillating between man and nature, as well as amongst themselves. While Ottoway’s experiences in the outdoors makes him the natural leader, it's inevitable that there’s some conflict, specifically with the pessimistic Diaz, played by Frank Grillo.
Carnahan, who has over-stylized most of his films in his filmography, indeed applies a strong visual look, including grainy faces combined with over-exposed white skies that enhance the harshness of the environment. Here it all works. Carnahan’s camera work is precise, handheld some of the time, but never shaky. And his near invisible use of CG effects (snow and background matting) effectively put us in one of the most violent environments on Earth.
Evocative music and artful detours to flashback sequences take us out of the harsh world creating a sad feeling of inevitability for these characters. Never do we feel a happy ending is coming, nor do we want it. For Ottoway it’s about coming to grips with the trauma in his life and challenging his angst and rage into a final battle with the relentless wolves.
Carnahan relaxes his inspired realism on a few occasions when a character or a set piece or two lapses into stock conventionality, but not enough to tarnish the experiential nature of this film, thrilling and moving, and not easily forgotten.