RIORI Vol 3, Installment 84: Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” (2012)

 



The Players…

Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, Ben Bray, James Dale and whomever else makes it out alive.


The Story…

After a plane crash on the Alaskan tundra, the survivors must endure angry weather, bitter cold, possible starvation and being hopelessly lost.

Oh, and the wolves. The very hungry wolves. Can’t forget about them.

So in addition to unforgiving Mother Nature, the resourceful Ottway and his band of misfits had better find a way to stay alive, stay warm, keep fed and keep the wolves at bay double-quick. Otherwise…

Let’s not think about otherwise.


The Rant…

One of the biggest issues I take with modern society is how modern it is.

Don’t misunderstand me. I appreciate modern society. Without it I’d have no health insurance, food at the local Wegman’s, a car to drag my ass to work and Wi-Fi, which allows me to write this blog about movies that would not exist without digital technology. I enjoy my iTunes collection and Nintendo, too. And bagels (can’t forget the bagels). However, I am led to believe that humans as a species has grown so removed from Mother Nature that when it comes down to dwelling in her untrammeled kingdom, the human race would at its current state of development be f*cked.

This isn’t going to be one of my usual snotty screeds. Sarcasm only goes so far to make a point. No. What follows will be more humane, more philosophical. Less blowing smoke than I am wont to do. I’ve been terribly naked in the past few years about where I’m coming from and how certain mediocre movies may make my angry spittle justified. Not here. Just be patient. A point will come. Eventually.

*out comes the brandy and cigars*

By my count, humanity stopped cooperating with Mother Nature well over a century ago, ever since the Industrial Revolution. As a benchmark for evolution, it was the first time that humans grew impatient with the gradual, deliberate and effective ways of living within the means of the biosphere. Humanity got too big for its britches, and commerce took hold (always a big motivator) and then railroads, telegraphs and steel mills superseded wagon trains, the pony express and felling trees for the homestead’s fireplace. It was inevitable in a sense, the ongoing evolution of society.

But evolution is a gradual thing. The Industrial Revolution was the diametric opposite of an agrarian way of life. And came fast. It was all about bigger, better, faster more. Urban development. Get off the farm, there’s real money and upward mobility to be found at the end of the nearest rail line. Stuff like that.

For millennia, humans abided by Nature’s fickle way of making things work out. Abiding by the seasons when it came to planting and seeding crops essential to life and the eventual harvest. Year in, year out. Building homesteads on the high ground, just in case of a groundswell. And positioning said homes with a southern exposure to maximize heat in the winter and maybe provide a little coolness in the summer. I live in an ancient stone farmhouse older than this nation’s founding. The walls are a foot-and-a-half thick, designed to keep this edfice’s mean temp 66 all year long. Southern exposure; okay in the summer, drafty come winter. The miller’s family who moved in back in 1802 knew how to cooperate.

Here’s a quick example: No feedlots back then, just pastures. Cattle were permitted to roam and graze. They weren’t crowded, hooked up to milking machines. Cows were hand-milked, not molested by rape-racks in the name of the Dairy Board’s bottom line. Manhandling cows was time consuming, but the product was better (I know. I’ve tasted the difference).

Free range wasn’t a movement, it was status quo. Livestock were allowed to wander as the seasons permitted. Soaking up the sun, growing plump and when summer ended, off to the chopping block. We may squirm now in the squeamish 21st Century at such dispatch in the name of nutrition, but yet we seldom any qualms scooping up bologna at the local supermarket full of chemicals that would kill a rhino.

Windmills. Sluice works. Tomatoes in summer and summer only. Canning in the lean months. Obeying the rules of the seasons. Cooperating with Nature, not trying to bend and fold it to suit the whims of impatient humans. Those back in the day had to cooperate with mercurial Mom all year long every year or else wreck and ruin.

That being said, and as reflection on my reflection we’ll talk about entropy. The universe runs on it. Everything falls apart. Unless great amounts of energy are dumped into a system to maintain order, you’d be living in a scene straight out of The Day After right now. With no Wi-Fi. Nature is the penultimate guardian at the gates that both demands and invites the endless cycle of build it up, tear it down. A concept most humans recognize as just urban renewal. Truth is we’re still all pawns in her game.  That little bloop illustrates in part my going somewhere point. I think.

Consider New York City. The metropolis to end all metropolises. It’s not supposed to be there. Can you imagine all the resources required to keep that city running? Electricity. Gas lines. Sewer systems. Well-paved roads (sometimes) for surly Middle Eastern cab drivers to cage a fare. Can you imagine all the energy necessary to keep the City running smoothly, pissy Travis Bickle types praying for rain and all? Yet the City doesn’t run smoothly, despite all the high tech and desperate systems designed to keep it all smooth. It’s not perfect. Cities strain against entropy. Look how potholes grow and spread like malign fungus.

So yeah. Urban life requires a lot of juice to keep it all running right. Cities in general are anti-nature. They refuse to cooperate, by design. They bat away Nature, like gnats at a picnic. But even for urbanized, stubborn domesticity Mother Nature always creeps its scolding finger. Example? The Empire State Building. Probably the most famous skyscraper in the world. It has two sub-basements, anchoring the edifice. I learned that there are monitors for the building that often have to check the water level in the sub-basement where the long gone river that once ran under the building. You know, so the moisture doesn’t waterlog the foundation. Such water damage may compromise the skyscraper’s structural integrity. There are watermarks scrawled on the wall demarcating where that stubborn streams rises up, a reminder of Manhattan’s once verdant past. Nature is always cagey in letting us know who’s boss, if only hidden from the denizens of NYC, crabby cabbies and all.

Now consider the flipside: Sequoia National Park, for example. Those titular trees have grown stout and tall all by themselves. No dusting, no cultivation, no seeding. Those monsters are hundreds of years old, tall as a five storey building. They’ve survived forest fires, lightning strikes and man. By cooperating. Like these massive trees had any choice (last I knew, timber has no freewill). The forest is a self-regulating, self-sufficent system with no need for fumbling humanity to muck up the works. And if it ain’t broke, don’t harvest it, plant three saplings and cross your fingers. As much as we claim to know about how Nature works and how best to exploit it, on a basal level invited by modern conveniences if we were to try to commune with Nature, respect it, we’d end up a hors d’oeuvres for a salivating grizzly. With no Wi-Fi to call for help. Those damned sequoias screw with reception.

Here’s a possible scenario. Say you got a hot nut to go camping. You prepare well. Lots of potable water and durable food; Clif Bars, granola and potted meat product at the ready. Tinder for a campfire. The proper wardrobe. Compass, sextant, bread crumbs. A satellite phone, before God. You tell yourself you are set for your adventure. A pair of LL Bean’s hunter boots strapped tightly to your tender feet. Off you trek.

Mother Nature says, “Hold my beer.”

Your weatherproof tent gets torn to shreds from one of those violent, sudden thunderstorms. You were careful to hang perishable foodstuffs from a tree, but the branch was weak and in the night clever raccoons found themselves a snack. Your Camelback sprung a leak during your trek in the hot sun. Stunted by the heat, you stumble upon an upswell of water and decide to take a sip. With no knowledge of the precious value of iodine, your quick drink invites crippling diarrhea later down your stumbling path, blind with cramps. Those damned mosquitoes are the icing on the cake.

Eventually you find yourself covered in mud, as well as slick feces, barfy, lost and Mother Nature’s equalizers—cunning predators smelling an easy mark—ready to take your carcass separated from the precious Wi-Fi into their fangs and gullets. At least you remembered to hang that sack of Clif Bars from your pack. The one that fell into that well that gave you the sh*ts. Best laid plans.

Unless you’re the next Bear Grylls, you’re fast becoming the next dork on an ep of Naked & Afraid. Ever faster as a pile of bear pellets. Or deer pellets, if you’re worse off. You are. And Mama Nature don’t f*ck around. You’re an irritant, a defiler of the pristine wilderness, lost in Nature’s Domain. As of this post, it’s 2018 and you’ve been living in a cushy world of modern convenience that started when Sam Morse had a brilliant communication idea. And it wasn’t Wi-Fi.

Nature and humanity has always been a balancing act. Forever it was never man vs Nature. It was man with nature. There was a time (not too long ago in the scheme of things) that people cooperated with Nature, not trying to control it. Conquer it. Recall the resurgent stream underneath the Empire State. Nature always has the last laugh. Most of modern society never gets the joke.

Too bad it’s on them…


It’s just your typical drilling town. Another outpost out-of-ways in the tundra of Alaska. In the definite middle of nowhere, the roughnecks drawing crude work hard and play hard. It’s the kind of place where either the nuts or the hardy make their trade. Maybe both.

Ottway (Neeson) is in charge of security. A special kind. He doesn’t break up bar fights. He doesn’t sniff out smugglers. He doesn’t give a sh*t about petty theft or needs to. He doesn’t do humans.

Wolves. He exterminates wolves.

The drilling op is on the fringes of the wolfpack territory, where they try to defend their line and protect their den. The wolves are brave and have been getting braver. It’s a battle of wills. The humans who want to make a living and the pack that must defend their living. Someone has to tip their hat soon.

But never mind that for now. Ottway and company have earned a furlough. A plane ride out of this frozen hellhole to get away from it all. Bright sunshine, no rigging and for our man, no wolves to pester him. He has a girl in mind.

Fast forward a few hours…

Ottway and six others are the only roughnecks to survive the plane crash. They are in the middle of the middle of Alaskan nowhere. The wind cuts, the snow blinds, the provisions lean and the very pissed off wolves are even more pissed off these stupid humans were unceremoniously dumped smack dab into their territory. This isn’t just gonna be some incursion with Ottway and his fellow survivors in tow.

It’s going to be a war.


I’m going to slip slide the normal Standard rules here. The Grey got good reviews. It’s budget was doubled at the box office, which meant the studio broke even. Heck, the film was dropped in the appropriate dead winter of January, hardly a time to release a high profile adventure movie no matter how sagely timed.

So why are we here?

The Grey is a misfit. Sure, it broke even. It got mostly high marks. And it also a creeping sense of indifference, despite its high profile. Namely, “Heck, sure. I’ll go. F*cking cabin fever and I wanna see how Ducard slays the wolves.” In other words, what else is there to do? The storm felled the wires so streaming’s offline. Besides, I need popcorn but the microwave is asleep.

That was the backdrop, more or less. I got the skewers from the major media outlets. Great movie who cares? Well, I betcha folks were bored after Oscar season and needed a cinematic colonic. The Grey fit the bill. The Tomatometer announced 80%. Audience responses were a splat at %60. No one knew what to do in January 2012. I slept a lot.

Hats off to Neeson, then. And you’re welcome.

The Taken series of movies introduced us to Liam Neeson the action star. Heckuva mid-life crisis. I’ll admit I scoffed at the man’s 180 career move. So did most moviegoers. However there was a precedent set for Neeson setting a toe in the action genre back in the early 90s playing the anti-hero in Sam Raimi’s Darkman. For the uninformed, Neeson plays the titular character portraying some proto-superhero/master of disguise. He’s on a mission of vengeance against the mob, so much intrigue and busted fingers ensues. A lot of busted fingers. I kinda liked it, but quite the departure for our tall, dark, handsome and Irish leading man.

Before—and not long after this lark—Neeson was best known for his dramatic and comedic roles.  So much so he earned an Oscar nod as the protag in the historical drama Schindler’s List. Miles away from Darkman. Who’d’ve thunk the guy was harboring a need to get all John McClane on kidnappers, hijackers and Batman?

So. Liam Neeson as action star? Forget Schindler’s List. Say hello to Schindler’s fist.

I’ve scanned Neeson’s filmography. According to AllMovie, the man’s CV is split down the middle. Almost equal parts action roles and dramatic/comedic roles. The curious thing the bulk of the action roles began with the first Taken installment and has been rolling almost non-stop (heh) since with the bone-crunching. That means there’s an entire generation of kids who only know Neeson as an action star. Oskar who?

So what then? I’m saying it’s hard to truly appreciate Neeson’s range beyond adventurer unless you surrender yourself to stuff like Satisfaction, Husbands And Wives, of course Schindler’s and, um, Krull. Since the guy’s résumé screams of diversity and range, I think it’s safe to say the jump into action flicks isn’t such a stretch. Especially his honed dramatic chops portraying the brooding Ottway in The Grey.

That being said, let get on with the flick.

As an a adventurer, Neeson certainly looks the part with his grizzled face and tall frame.It should give us pause to wonder why the man wasn’t cast as an action star earlier. Sure, we had Taken, but that had too much glitz, a novelty factor. Grey may be the true beginning as Neeson as action star. Thanks to his dramatic chops, his Ottway has some gravitas that Rambo, McClane and Martin Riggs lacked. Those characters were kinda fun. Neeson’s Ottway is anti-fun, if not totally unlikeable. Precious little charm paired with a hangdog a football field long. This is our hero? Yes, yes he is. The product reveals itself slowly, allowing plenty of time to see where our protag is coming from. Ottway is no Brian Mills. He’s passive, haunted and afraid. With good reason considering the very unfun conditions he and his crew are teething through.

That’s just it. The world of Grey is dire, more so than busting up a kidnapping ring or derailing a train with most chuckles (and busted fingers). It’s an adventure film, but passive. Neeson and his fellow crash survivors are victims of their environment and the final goal is survival. Period. No big bad guy. No quest for hidden gold. Nothing more than to best the wolfpack and give Nature the middle finger. The Grey is dour, but just as engaging as Non-Stop. Or Schinder’s List, for that matter.

This movie may be the true beginning of Neeson as action hero. Exchanging adrenaline for existentialism makes for a potent hero. Consider Chris Klein as Captain America, all brooding and reluctant to pick up the shield once more. Or even better Sly Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood. Reluctant heroes forced into their roles, and boy do they not like it.

Neeson’s Ottway may not be Steve Rogers, rough and ready. He’s just rough, and is wobbly on being ready. Grey is the next step after Taken as far as action heroes go. Active vs passive. It’s the quiet ones one must pay attention to. Like Hannibal Lecter, even though he’s behind bars. Ottway is behind his own bars, as the movie hints at.

That being said, Grey may be the true beginning of Neeson as action hero. His Taken and others were all whiz-bang and broken limbs. It takes a certain amount of nuance to be a real action star. I’m talking pathos, a step back and taking a breath from all the head butts. There are no head butts in Grey, instead a lot of heady sh*t. Grey is the next stage: Neeson as adventurer. Consider Indiana Jones in Raiders: “It’s not the years. It’s the milage.” Vulnerability. Not bulletproof. This may be Jaws on the tundra, but a great deal of Grey is the USS Minneapolis monologue. Reluctant adventurers slowly learning of their descent into futility. Even Indy had his moments of doubt and pain. So did Luke Skywalker. So did John McClane, crawling around the maze of Nakatomi Plaza littered with a wolfpack of terrorists. He got shot at a lot. Vulnerable.

If you’re expecting dire wolf (ha!) action in Grey, you’re in for a surprise. Hopefully a pleasant one (as far as visceral survival stories go).

The wolfpack is nothing more than the Maguffin in Grey. Sure, there are wolf attacks here and there, but it’s mostly eyewash, reminding us of the peril Ottway and crew are in. Mostly all you’re left with is the aftermath of an attack; no body, lots of bloody pawprints. A great deal of Grey is all about survival, imperious Mother Nature hell bent on ruining the downed oil riggers. The wind, no bearings, the cold. You can taste the cold here. It’s the true enemy, wearing our cast down so and end up being wolf kibble. When it comes to the classic man vs nature story, nature isn’t manifest as irritated animals. It’s all about landslides, blizzards, forest fires and floods that invite wreck and ruin. For Grey it’s the cold as primary enemy. The hungry wolves are like not showing the shark. Both are quite effective.

This invites the pinion which Grey spins. This is an existential adventure movie, all about man’s place in the scheme of things. A great deal of Grey revolves around survival, wolves or no wolves. The trailers I caught for Grey were misleading. Cleverly so. I expected to see Neeson in full Martin Riggs mode, hopped up on adrenaline, RockStar and adrenalin flaying rabid wolves into sausages.

Nope.

Mostly Ottway and his fellow survivors are lost and fleeing. They aren’t really seeking civilization and rescue. They don’t know that. All they want to do is live, against all odds. It becomes clear by the second act that this is a fool’s errand. There’s no way out. The sooner you accept this the more rewarding the film becomes. Grey is not about hungry wolves preying on hapless plane crash survivors. It’s about big, bad Momma Nature tearing the humanity from our castaways and they eventually surrender to the inevitable. It’s not the days, it’s the strained desperation to live. For what? It all becomes a Sartre text  as our cast succumbs to the inevitable: facing mortality.

Does The Grey refer to the sneaking wolfpack or the middle ground between between right and wrong? The grey area, so to speak? I know I’ve beaten the whole existential idea to death here. We get it, we get it. Ottway et al are f*cked. Commence edgy navel gazing, suckling at mama wolf’s teat. Yeah, yeah. But there is the keen, terse monologues Ottway schpiels about battling wolves and bowing to Nature. Vulnerability, remember? Invites humanity.

Here’s a good example: “Stare right back.” Predators love a staring contest. It’s what makes your average beagle cover its nose and noisy cats scurry away. Look away first and you lose. Bite to the jugular. Such moments bait you into believing that these guys are in control. I mean, it’s true about “negotiating” with predators. Staring contest. But it’s weak sauce, a tease. Such moments lure us into a sense of false hope. Every time Ottway opens his mouth with some pithy reassurance that all will be well, it blows up in his face an the body count rises.

And seasoned acting from Neeson’s pedigree lets us rubes believe that all will work out for the better, even though we know it won’t. C’mon. Seven survivors from a plane crash into the gullet of Alaskan cruelty. No f*cking way they’re all gonna make it out alive. Maybe a few, but all? With such stakes? That sinking doubt with a few scrabbled scenes of “hope?” Thank God Ottway is there to keep the home fires  burning, especially when the alpha wolf is on the spit.

What keeps Grey alive (so to speak) is that there’s a lot of honest humanity at work. It’s the only defense. Our characters are cyphers, but well-placed cyphers. Ottway is the gruff, de facto leader of this rabble. Diaz is the tough guy. Talget is the sensitive one. And Burke is the expendable black dude. All our marks are in place. Relatable, draws you in. You can’t be on level with the impassive Alaskan mountains, except with submission. But the cast? Us against them—it. Sometimes against each other. That’s what matters here in our archetypal “man vs Nature” theme. Grey is more us. The wolfpack is the Maguffin. A keen one, but not the heart of the story. Keeping them in the shadows is. How our cast chew on each other drive the true plot: survival, plain and simple.

A thing I really dug about Grey was how plausible it was. Barring any old eps of The Jeff Corwin Experience, the dire circumstances that envelop our cast could (and likely has) gone down. As the Alaskan terrain casts it gloom down on our survivors, you get the feeling that someone did their research. Let me repeat that the whole man vs Nature device is a favorite plot device in film. Consider Jaws, All Is Lost, Dersu Uzala and to a certain degree the original Predator. Take modern man out of his comfort zone, let Nature run riot and hoo-boy the sparks will fly. I’m convinced that with a film like Grey, the environment should be a character in itself, and not just some backdrop. It should be some huge, wheezing behemoth of indifference casting a shadow over the hapless humans who dare tread in its domain. Grey is an excellent example of this process. You must give awe to Nature in order to ride along with Ottway and his rabble. The Edge, Into The Void and Jaws 2 (and 3, and 4) doesn’t respect that. Man trying to conquer Nature there. Plants a seed of warm fuzziness. Not welcome here with Grey. Again the cold, the lost and the hungry beasts waiting on the fringes cannot be ignored. And over two hours refuses to be. I may have mentioned that Grey is terse, to be sure. It’s also uber-existential. We have this dwindling septet of plane crash survivors still trying to survive against snow, hunger and the omnipresent specter of a wolfpack gnashing at their wobbly heels. Allows for pauses within the cadre to assess their situation. I’m not talking about some pithy, Sartre-esque soliloquies about bad faith and how tasty canis lupus regards human thighs. The dry, desperate instructions Ottway gravely states to his scared, reluctant team speak volumes about their (human) condition. Parting from Ottway’s dire fear, Momma Nature is keen to scream at us all is f*cked.

Just because Grey is relentlessly gloomy doesn’t make it a bad watch. Shocker. I only wax this philosophical when I dig the movie. Wait, that’s not true. A good many of my screeds here at RIORI involve pummeling cinematic disappointments, seen through a squinty, jaundiced lens. Not here. I thoroughly dug The Grey. Yes, it is downbeat. It’s harrowing. It denies popcorn. It backs up my philosophy above about working with nature instead of against it. But really that outlook would render this movie moot. It’s really about the humanity, ground down to the nub. So much so that our outcasts begin to mimic their perceived enemy.

Final note: The wallets? Ottway’s pack. The family he must defend. It’s futility incarnate. But it must be done.

That being belched, I appreciated the open-ended finale. Makes one’s imagination do the work. Like my quip about the Universe falling apart by design. Everything in Grey falls apart. Gloriously so.

“If you live among wolves you must act as a wolf yourself.” – Nikita Khrushchev


The Verdict…

Rent ir or relent it? Rent it. Another quote: “There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.” George Carlin. The turned phrase feels fitting for a movie like this where all may be lost at a given moment. Yeah, howl.


Stray Observations…

  • Why a fountain pen? Subzero temps play hell with ballpoints. They clot and jam. Science!
  • “You’re gonna die; that’s what’s happening.”
  • Neeson’s facial abrasion gets rather distracting.
  • Grillo almost steals the show.
  • “Maybe I’ll turn into a wolfman now.”
  • So does this mean that makes Neeson the “alpha wolf?” (rimshot)
  • It’s almost as if Ottway needed this adventure.
  • “You wanna say anything?”
  • REDACTED‘s demise. Heartbreaking.
  • I may actually have to buy this movie. No bullish*t.
  • “We don’t belong here.”

Next Installment…

Will Farrell is an overly enthusiastic little league soccer coach, and the only way he’d deny his team a championship is by a lot of Kicking And Screaming.


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