Every death a tragedy
MEN surviving in extreme conditions in the wild tend to look much the same in movies: haggard, frowsy, weather-beaten, shrouded in capes and fur. I often have trouble telling them apart. So it may help if I offer a quick guide to the main characters in The Grey, who are stranded in an icy wasteland in Alaska after a plane crash.
Liam Neeson is the one with the angry red patch on his left cheek. Then there’s the raving sociopath — the one with the dark beard and moustache. There’s the black guy, there’s the guy with glasses and there’s the sensible, rather thoughtful chap whom I identified by the fair colour of his whiskers. According to the credits, all the characters have names. Of course they do. But since we rarely hear them some other form of character ID is called for.
Knowing exactly who’s who may not matter so much in regular horror films or action adventures. But The Grey, directed by Joe Carnahan, is also a psychological thriller, a study of men under stress. And much of its power and fascination comes from judging, and anticipating, the men’s reactions to events. Who will be the first to panic in a tight situation? Who will be the first to volunteer for a perilous exploit — leaping from a cliff to string a makeshift rope between the banks of an icy torrent? Who will be the first to scale the rope? And who will be the first to die?
There’s a lot dying in The Grey: men die well and men die badly. But the film is no glib exercise in heroics. It’s tragedy of the purest kind, played out against a background of uncompromising starkness and grandeur.
Neeson (who has that red patch on his cheek) has been working at an oil refinery as a sharpshooter, hired to kill marauding bears or wolves that might threaten workers during their outdoor shifts. On a flight back home he’s one of eight survivors after their plane is caught in a blizzard and crashes in the snow. (And nervous air travellers should be warned that Carnahan delivers the most terrifying and convincing account of a bad air trip since the one in United 93.)
The wreckage of the plane is ransacked for supplies; the bodies of the dead are searched and their wallets kept for identification. Then someone (I think it’s the guy with the pale whiskers) suggests that some sort of burial rites be observed before the survivors move on. This done, the men begin their long and gruelling trek to who knows where.
Apart from its human cast, The Grey features a large cast of wolves. The wolves also look much alike, as wolves do. Except that these aren’t real animals, but animatronic models and computer-generated simulations designed to look as scary as possible. I’ve always considered wolves to be rather proud and handsome creatures, despite their bad reputation in fairytales, and not all that different from my other canine heroes, Rin Tin Tin and Inspector Rex. But Carnahan’s wolves are something else: black and monstrous, with eyes that glow in the dark. ‘‘ They’re man-eaters,’’ says someone (I think it’s the guy with the glasses) and naturally they behave like ravaging beasts.
So at one level The Grey is an oldfashioned monster movie. When someone (it may be the guy with the fair hair) mentions those old werewolf legends I thought we might be back in the days of Claude Rains and Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man. I tried hard to be scared by Carnahan’s monsters, but just couldn’t summon the right reaction of terror and revulsion required of me. I felt sorry for one poor wolf that is killed and roasted to provide the men with a well-earned meal.
The screenplay is based on a short story, Ghost Walker, by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, which I haven’t read. It’s possible the wolves are meant as a symbolic presence, supernatural manifestations of the darker forces of nature that the men must overcome. When the raving sociopath decapitates a wolf in a violent frenzy it’s a like a cry of rage against the whole animal kingdom. But gradually the wolves recede from the story; what seemed at first to be a central theme — man vs predator — is overtaken in the larger struggle for survival.
This allows Carnahan time to explore the men’s humanity, their shared longings. There’s a quiet little scene around a fireside when memories of families are exchanged and big questions raised: what is reality? what can heaven be like? Neeson’s character (his name, we discover, is Ottway) has a former lover, whose face appears to him in reveries and dreams. Such moments — combined with those other-worldly wolves and the stark landscape — give the film a mythic quality. We’re always a step back from hard-edged reality.
The last Carnahan film I saw was Smokin’ Aces, an orgy of violence played for cheap laughs and exhibiting a degree of cynicism and contempt for the value of human life rare even by the standards of the Hollywood action thriller. The Grey may be a kind of atonement. In this film, every life is precious; every death a tragedy to be mourned by lovers and families, whose faces we glimpse in photographs recovered from bodies.
The tone may falter at times, but this strange and harrowing film won’t be easily forgotten. The cast, consisting mainly of little-known actors (chosen, we are told, for their anonymity), includes Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson and James Badge Dale. The raving sociopath is played with unnerving conviction by Frank Grillo, and I leave readers to match other names and faces as best they can. For those who stay to the end of the credits there’s a brief final shot which I took to be a macabre joke. I’m not sure it’s worth waiting for.
Liam Neeson, centre, leads a largely unknown cast in the survival adventure The Grey