Ev­ery death a tragedy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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