Man vs. Wild, by Kyle Anderson
The three types of narrative conflict, it has been said, are Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself. Joe Carnahan went for the hat trick by employing all three for his new film, The Grey. It’s the story of an ever-dwindling group of plane crash survivors who are stranded in the desolate, freezing conditions of the Arctic tundra and who must somehow find a way back to civilization. It’s much more compelling than I had initially expected. The advertisements for the film did little to make me want to see it, but this was the fault of marketing and, thankfully, not the film. While depicted as a pulse-pounding action movie with Liam Neeson punching arctic wolves in the face, it’s a much more thoughtful, contemplative, and melancholic story, with some very excited moments and, yes, a few instances of wolves getting punched in the face.
The film opens with Ottway (Neeson) writing a letter to his wife. She’s no longer in the picture but he nevertheless feels compelled to write and through this we learn that he has taken a job with an oil drilling team in Alaska hunting wolves that threaten the team. He is beyond depressed and contemplates taking his own life, though something stops him. He boards a plane with the team after the job has finished which promises to take them back home, however the weather conditions are horrible and the craft ultimately crashes in the middle of nowhere. Ottway gathers the survivors, seven in total, and they survey the wreckage and the bodies of their dead friends to find food and start a fire. On the first night, they find a dead body being eaten by a Timber Wolf. Ottway fights off the wolf, sustaining a leg wound in the process. He tells the others they wolves are probably just passing through, intrigued by the smell of blood and death in the air, however if the plane has crashed in the wolves’ territory, it’s likely the humans will be perceived as a threat. Another attack that night confirms that the wolves intend to kill all of the humans. Now Ottway must attempt lead the weary group, amid backbiting, paranoia, and unendurable conditions, to civilization before they all freeze to death, starve, or fall victim to the wolves.
Survivalist films are generally pretty hit and miss. The 1997 film The Edge has Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins fighting off a Kodiak bear while spouting David Mamet dialogue and contains some good parts, but overall it falls flat. The Grey, which is of the same ilk as The Edge, is much better in every possible sense. The film’s look is very much in keeping with Carnahan’s earlier Narc with its definite color scheme and handheld style. The name of the film is very apt, as nearly every frame has the characters surrounded by indefinite grey hues. The only instances of brighter, warmer colors come when Ottway has flashbacks to his wife and father, both of which are accompanied by golds, yellows, and browns. It’s difficult to film such an empty, forbidding environment and make it seem majestic, but Carnahan manages this admirably. You certainly wouldn’t like to go there, but you can appreciate the splendor. Carnahan also does a fantastic job of making the environment as unpleasant and uninhabitable as possible. The wind is constantly blowing with freezing snow and the characters all wear multiple coats and hats and have frost on their faces to show just how cold it is out there. Unlike The Edge where Baldwin and Hopkins wear coats, but have them open throughout. Must look cool at all times. Liam Neeson doesn’t need to look cool; he IS cool.
The wolves are an omnipresent threat, jumping into frame with an attack seemingly out of nowhere; however they’re a device more than an antagonist. The weather and the terrain are just as dangerous as the wolves, but the wolves serve two purposes: to give a very visible and fast-acting problem, and to create urgency. If there weren’t any wolves, yes they’d need to get out of the wilderness before they froze or starved, but they wouldn’t have to be as harried about it. By the end of the film, also, the wolves have become a personal battle for Liam Neeson’s character. With each friend who dies, he becomes more and more determined to beat the pack. The wolves are almost entirely computer generated and while this was a fear going in, Carnahan knew how to shoot them so their fakeness wasn’t as evident and their creepiness factor was elevated. They are almost always shot in shadow, far away, or in the middle of blowing snow. You catch just little glimpses of them in the background or behind objects and it really serves them well. Their howls also become a piece of the score. In one scene, the survivors are trying to light a fire so the wolves won’t get them and we hear the howling, yelping, and barking of the pack growing ever louder and faster as Neeson tries to get the Zippo working.
The acting in the film is very good, especially Neeson, who I believes gives one of his best performances in quite a long while. Everybody has a distinct character and we get bits of backstory for everybody. The survivors aren’t all there simply as wolf bait or to make Neeson look more heroic; they’ve got stories and families and experiences of their own. Each character throughout the course of the film must decide how much he wants to live and how much he’s willing to fight. Not all of the characters like each other but they all seem to reach an understanding, not unlike the bonds made during wartime. They have a responsibility to each other to get through the ordeal, and that’s what’s most enticing about the movie. Neeson really has made a name for himself lately in action movies playing someone with “a very particular set of skills,” and this film is in keeping with that, as he knows about the habits of wolves since he had been hired to hunt them. He is, however, a much deeper, sadder character than in the other films, though no less physical or active. His character begins wanting to kill himself and whether or not he survives is secondary to whether or not he wants to survive, which is the real heart of the movie. It’s strange that Liam Neeson has transformed himself into a proper action movie star at this point in his life, but he does it with aplomb. He’s the thinking man’s action star, which is impressive, especially as he’s going to turn 60 this year.
If you’re going to The Grey because you want to see Liam Neeson tape knives and broken bottles to his hands and fight a wolf, you’re going to have a very long wait and it probably won’t be worth it to you. But if you want to see a very well made, well written, well acted film about people having the will to continue amid almost certain death and destruction, this is the movie for you. I was very pleasantly surprised in every aspect of the film and was thoroughly enthralled and for a January release, you can’t ask for much more than that.