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Review: 'The Grey' Pits Stock Characters Against Cartoon Wolves

Reviews
by Gabe Toro
January 17, 2012 10:08 PM
12 Comments
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It wasn’t long ago that Liam Neeson was considered a prestigious name in film. Though his early career was peppered with genre roles, “Schindler’s List” put him on the map as an awards-friendly leading man. But in the past few years, Neeson has reinvented himself once again, into the hardest of men, a proud warrior who will throw down with any on-comer. You no longer need exposition in a Liam Neeson movie, only his weathered, battered face.

This serves the spartan wilderness drama “The Grey” quite well. Director Joe Carnahan, he of the bells and whistles of “Smoking Aces” and “The A-Team,” has gone to the wild, focusing on barren wastelands and the icy terrain of Alaska. Neeson plays Ottway, a rugged outdoorsman charged with protecting oil rigs from wolf attacks, but distracted by the pain of the past. His hazy memory of a lost wife remains abstract. Did she die? Did she leave? We put together what we can from Ottway’s tragic voiceover. It’s vague, but just regretful enough that we understand when Ottway places the cold barrel of a gun in his own mouth.

Headed home after another job, Ottway finds himself sharing a plane with the collection of central casting grunts, each with their own distinct “movie” characterization: this one is chatty, this one is cynical, this one is black. It’s actually quite fascinating to see that Neeson, the international superstar and only real recognizable face amongst this bunch, is the most convincing as a real person. We also, of course, know that this means he’ll survive a believable, upsetting plane crash that leaves the survivors in the middle of nowhere.

There’s instant tension, as not only was Ottway not a member of the oil rig crew, but he’s obviously the oldest and most naturally alpha. He immediately starts barking orders about survival to the younger victims, all of whom are still trembling by what’s just happened. Nobody questions him when he shepherds a dying man stuck in the wreckage to wander towards the light in peace, but attitudes begin to surface as Ottway suggests they head for the woods. Not to be saved, as they all hope, but to avoid the wolves.

“The Grey” is an often devastatingly uncomfortable film. As Ottway and his companions work their way through knee-high snow, the temptation for the viewer is to hold their hands up to their mouths and blow. Carnahan packs his film with survivalist thrills, some as subtle as the patterns of rest and tendency to look out for each other, some as obvious as collapsing ice on mountaintops. Shame about those wolves.

The fanged villains of the piece are the masters of their domain, and, paraphrasing Ottway, our humans have crash-landed right in the middle of Wolf Country. And while Carnahan is dedicated towards the ruthlessness of the weather and atmosphere, the wolves strike at a moment’s notice,  some silently and out of nowhere, some from above or below, howling like monsters. The reverb in the stereo gets a nice workout whenever these monstrous creatures are around. Some near the size of humans, these fairly unbelievable, often CG-assisted behemoths have neon eyes that glow in the dark, and visibly taunt their human prey with various fakeouts.

It becomes clear that, in the wolf sequences, Carnahan wanted to make a horror film. Unfortunately, the five-tool filmmaker, who hasn’t put it all together since “Narc,” also wants to make a pitch-dark wilderness thriller. And he’s hamstrung both that idea and the horror of these Monster Wolves by surrounding Ottway with “types.” The only real standout is Frank Grillo, here playing an exasperated contrarian who gets to stick around long enough to regret his actions. In the film’s spookiest moments, he’s darkly funny as someone who doesn’t really want to do the legwork but instead to shirk it, enjoying the pleasures of cursing off the natural order of the world.

Neeson, naturally, is as good as ever, though it’s not a particularly demanding role. Ottway is a man of command, but not particularly of many other words. He’s matched with a filmmaker who has a go-for-broke attitude, but Carnahan’s always been a guy wrestling with his own natural bad taste. A sequence where the group needs to repel across a canyon is a bonafide white-knuckler, and thus far the best moment in his career as far the synthesis between his storytelling honesty and kitchen-sink interest in cheap thrills. Others moments in “The Grey” approach this, but unfortunately it’s saddled with what poisoned his last two films, mostly as far as inconsistent characterization and a coarse sensibility that reduces “The Grey” to sequences of character actors trapped in dull roles, chased by cartoon animals. [C+]

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12 Comments

  • skydog | January 27, 2012 1:01 PMReply

    You got the part about cartoon animals right. Actual wolves are nothing like these CG creatures. Lions and tigers and bears ...and wolves, oh my! Get a clue and grow up.

  • Mr Anonymous | January 18, 2012 1:46 PMReply

    I'm quite surprised at the C+ review. A lot of other reviews have said the film is simply amazing and Liam Neeson gives an Oscar-worthy performance which could have garnered a nomination if the film had been released at the end of 2011, instead of Jan '12.

    Hmmmm, interesting!

  • Kevin | January 18, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    To all the haters, Gabe's review is totally spot on. Tonally uneven, and he's right -- it's two movies fighting against themselves. One, a more horror styled wolf vs man movie and another more existential whatever about the the nature of God. Neither is developed fully (particularly the latter).

  • Max | January 27, 2012 12:48 PM

    Here comes Kevin, to suck on Gabe's hairy Mexican asshole.

  • JoJo | January 18, 2012 11:30 AMReply

    If Melissa McCarthy was in this movie, they could have sacrificed her to the wolves, as she would have kept them sated for decades.

  • Nelson | January 18, 2012 12:06 PM

    Ha ha.

  • Sully | January 18, 2012 11:14 AMReply

    Im so happy that "Wolfie" destroyed this review, and reviewer. I have also seen the film, and it was, to me, an extremely powerful film that surprised me every minute. I believe that it will be one of 2012's best and it's only mid-January. Gabe, how can you call this review successful? I have to ask what's already been asked: Did you even see the film? I'm guessing not, because you find out what happens to Ottway's wife in the end... Forget that part? Or were the lines too thin for you to read between them? Of course Liam Neeson is going to survive the place crash. Did you want to put DiCaprio, Whalberg, Pacino, Travolta and The Rock on the plane and have them all die to keep up the mystery of "Who's going to survive?" And since when is a chatty guy a character type? You need to go back and figure out what happened here. Your review was all over the place, from hating the film to loving it and back to trashing it. Take your time, immerse yourself in the film, and figure out whether you liked this film or should go see it for the first time.

  • Edward Davis | January 18, 2012 2:27 PM

    Destroyed, lol.

  • Wolfie | January 18, 2012 7:22 AMReply

    Are you really serious??? Did you even watch the film or should I dare ask if you viewed it soberly? This is a completely misguided, failed attempt of a review. You really should be ashamed of this review Mr. Toro and I sincerely ask that you search your heart immeadiately. I've seen the film and it's a quality picture. It so much more then a "Liam Neeson fights the wolves" genre picture. It's completely offense how dismissive you are. Also did you really write this???:

    Headed home after another job, Ottway finds himself sharing a plane with the collection of central casting grunts, each with their own distinct “movie” characterization: this one is chatty, this one is cynical, this one is black

    That last one...REALLY???

    This is a sincerely made piece of work that raises some great questions in it. Your favorite film of last year was TREE OF LIFE. This film raises the same questions as that film. Oh, wait silly me... that one has MALICK's name on it & this one has the name CARNAHAN. Obviously this film was lost on you, maybe the film needed to drop it's earnestness & go for something more "ironic." That seems to be the way to go these days, am I not right??

    I know this seems like a blatant attack and it IS. Because I am sickened to see a great piece of work like this be dismissed. Seriously man, get off your mountaintop and join the 99%. You really need to stop "intellectualizing" and start connecting with your "humanity." You did it with TREE OF LIFE, so there obviously is hope... maybe try to go back to when you were young and watching films. Who were you then??? Remember that little guy more...

    Gabe, see the film again and then apologize for this review... and please make an "attempt" to retort to this message... the film comes out next week... People have a mind of their own and they will see what the film holds for themselves.

    (folks see this film for yourself, you're going to be "shocked" this isn't what it appears to be on the surface. If you're a human being, you're going to be shaken by this film. It's really about every single one of us.)

  • PC Chongor | January 18, 2012 9:46 AM

    Also:


    Not quite sure what happened there with the formatting. It was written I'm with ample paragraph breaking going on, but it didn't quite end up translating that way on the final screen (perhaps an ample metaphor for "The Grey" if what Gabe says end up being true about the film...)


    P.S.


    The CGI wolves do sound genuinely terrible.

  • PC Chongor | January 18, 2012 9:37 AM

    I must say, even though I've yet to see the film, and more often then not I agree with The Playlist's reviews, there does seem to be a little something off here.

    Not only was this picture a personal pet project for Carnahan, but in a recent interview Neeson also ranked his performance here as being the most successful role that he's ever played (even specifically singling it out over "Schindler's List").

    Now, there's a possibility that their efforts could have been completely misguided and that they can't seperate the excitement of shooting the film (both agreed that it was the most exciting shoot they've worked on) with the actual final product of the film, but I might just err of caution with one of the commenters this time.

    Lately this site HAS been on somewhat of a pretentious spell (if "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" or "A Seperation" had been in English, I sincerely doubt that the Playlist would still be calling these two highly overrated films "masterpieces"), and perhaps there IS a slight chance that Gabe had a few too many critical blinders up during his viewing of the film. Not every film requires the mental workout that something like "Tree of Life" or "We Need To Talk About Kevin" neccesitate, but that doesn't mean that anything shouldn't be given its fair shake.

    Again, I've yet to see the film, but after seeing how passionately all those involved with the film have been speaking about it (which seems to also include the above poster, who should know better than to take the bait, whether bad or good, from a critic), which is more than you can say about a good portion of other Hollywood films.

    The film very well may end up sucking when I see it, but at the very least I'll start by giving it the same hope and concentration that I gave to "Tree of Life" or "Kevin."

  • KT | January 17, 2012 11:30 PMReply

    "... each with their own distinct “movie” characterization: ... this one is black."

    Ha! You went there!

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