The Fashionably Late Review: The Grey
It should be ridiculous, but it’s actually quite good.
At its core, there is very little new to be found in 2011’s The Grey. An individual with a troubled past is forced by circumstance to lead a rag-tag band of comrades in a fight for survival. The story is familiar, but that does not necessarily mean it is boring. Solid performances combined with stylish and compelling direction make The Grey imminently watchable. Director Joe Carnahan, whose previous successes include the post-Tarantino (but still surprisingly good) Smokin’ Aces and the big loud n’ fun The A-Team, brings an eye for location and a knack for making our heroes’ desperation palpable.
The movie is about a team of oil workers leaving their remote Alaskan refinery for a well-deserved 2-week vacation. Their plane crashes in the middle of a snowdrift-covered Alaskan plain, killing most of the passengers. The remaining few must figure out how to survive starvation, hypothermia, in-fighting, and a pack of wild wolves. Big ones. With, like… teeth and stuff. The survivors are, predictably, picked off one by one as the group makes its way to the perceived shelter of a nearby forest.
The position of de facto leader falls to Ottway (Liam Neeson), a marksman whose job(?) at the refinery was to shoot wolves that get too close to the oil workers and their equipment. Ottway is tough as nails, but is haunted to the point of attempted suicide by visions of his wife. I guess Ottway’s job as a wolf sniper gives the movie an excuse to have him later speak authoritatively about wolves and their habits. But this is a mere peccadillo; the story is well-paced and quite compelling. Even Ottway’s speechifyin’ in the second act is less eye-rolly than one might expect. The climax of the story was, for whatever marketing reason, given away in the movie’s trailer, wherein Ottway attaches broken mini-bar bottles to his knuckles and prepares to fight the wolves in hand-to-paw combat.
Performances and story aside, among the movie’s greatest achievements is its sound design. I had the advantage of watching it at home, on a fair-to-middling 5.1 digital surround-sound system. The wolves’ growls and grunts were well-placed in the soundscape and were actually quite chilling at times. The relentless howl of the wind and snow storms made each scene feel all the more desperate. I’ve heard it said that good movie sound often goes unnoticed, but great movie sound usually stands out. I definitely rate the sound in The Grey “remarkable” in every sense of the word.
It’s easy to write off a movie like The Grey with a scoff like, “Liam Neeson is… the Wolfpuncher.” But to do so means you miss out on all the great things that went into (and came out of) this movie. Carnahan’s work to date has been admirable, and he certainly lends a stylish sheen to what could have been a very boring chase movie. Couple that with Neeson’s always top-shelf performance, and the great sound design, and you’ve got one thoroughly entertaining popcorn-chomper.