When A-Team director Joe Carnahan reteamed with Liam Neeson to make a movie of the internal struggle for survival, I would have wagered that most of us (and I raise my hand) thought it was just a film about Neeson and some seriously peeved wolves.
The film, not so surprisingly, is based upon a short story by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers who also co-wrote the screenplay. First, we meet Ottway (Neeson), a sharpshooter who works for oil companies to kill off predators who disrupt the work. After his last shift, he walks away from a bar full of what he refers to as the ‘people unfit for normal society’ and we see him contemplate suicide. For whatever reason, he stops and later boards a plane that he most likely will wish he hadn’t. Now Ottway and a group of oil-riggers who after a hell of a plane crash (*shudders*) must defend themselves not only against the harsh elements of Alaska but a pack of territorial wolves. Ottway, the only character knowledgeable in the ways of pack life, assumes the leadership role and tries to get the survivors as far away as he can from the wolves’ den.
The film falls short in a few areas. There’s the CGI’d wolves with slightly cartoonish fur and glow in the dark eyes. The expected storyline. Everyone knows how survival films go. Their fates are as predictable as any teen slasher film but with a lot more gusto. The major one is character development. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to characters that feel so real that (even when they possibly can’t be) they jump off a page or out of a screen. When this doesn’t happen, it’s hard not to think ‘well, why the hell should I care?’
The survivors, not including Neeson, are Dallas Roberts (The L Word, 3:10 to Yuma), Frank Grillo (Minority Report), Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding), Nonso Anozie (Conan the Barbarian), James Badge Dale (The Departed), Joe Anderson (The Crazies) and Ben Bray (guest star on CSI: Miami and Breaking Bad). All of the characters are either blank slates or absolute stereotypes – the stoic lead, the tough guy with good heart or the wannabe comic – that when the wolves start hunting, it’s a tad difficult for the audience to invest in them. One part of the problem is undoubtedly the writing but the film’s faults don’t just rest there. It’s also the actors. I’m sure it happens that actors are given loose backgrounds and it’s left to them to fill in the blanks and wow the audience. In The Grey, some accomplish this. Most don’t. Roberts’ Hendrick, Anozie’s Burke and Mulroney’s Talget, although all are sympathetic characters, come off bland and colourless next to Neeson’s Ottway and Grillo’s Diaz.
Neeson fascinates and there is a simple reason. And no, sadly it is not because someone sat down with some pen and paper and thought. He pulls off Ottway’s ‘f*ck it’ attitude making it so Irish it reeks and brings a much needed depth to a character that may have otherwise been one-dimensional (despite flashbacks, most of which are left to be interpreted). There are moments when Ottway appears to be so personal – the sadness in Ottway when he thinks of his wife – that you can’t help but think of Natasha Richardson. Neeson’s own tragedy makes his portrayal of a man heavy with sorrow all the more poignant. The only issue with Ottway is this – if he had been played by someone else (Bradley Cooper was rumoured to have dropped out of this role), would I have been so bought by Ottway’s struggle?
Frank Grillo is the only other actor who shines. He plays Diaz, an aggressive smart-ass who thinks showing fear makes you less of a man and constantly defies Ottway’s leadership. He is a stereotype and little more than that but Grillo makes the cliché of the guy you love to loathe richer once the tables turn. Diaz is the only character aside from Ottway who isn’t just shaking in his boots due to cold and fear but actually makes a connection with the audience. His final scene being his brightest moment.
What The Grey gets right is its cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi. Shot in the British Columbia, the film is spectacular to look at. The wilderness and open spaces adding to the sense of isolation and desperation of the groups seemingly doomed voyage. A favourite moment of mine being fresh blood seeping into a paw print in the snow.
It’s fair to say that this film may not be the best this year will have to offer or even within its genre but with an actor like Neeson, who manages to carry it through all of its low points, it really couldn’t be any better off.