Friday, February 3, 2012

"Live Or Die On This Day"

The Grey is, without question, the first great film of 2012. It is terrifying, compelling, thoughtful and exciting in equal measure, and features a lead performance by Liam Neeson that ranks with his best work, ever. It's also a real return to form for Joe Carnahan, who's surpassed his first, brilliant, feature, Narc, with this one.

John Ottway (Neeson) is a sharpshooter for an Alaskan oil company. His job is to bring down any wolves who might threaten the workers as they service the rig. Of course, he's good at his job (naturally), but Carnahan makes a point to show us that, even as he ends these animals, he does feel some bond with them.

It's a bond he doesn't seem to share with any other human soul. We see him enter a company bar, a voice over setting up a rather dark view of the men who would take such a God-forsaken job, in such a God-forsaken place. He's also haunted by visions of  his wife, who has left him, and will never be returning. Ottway is in suicidal despair, a state of mind the film makes vividly clear. He struggles to find a reason to live.

Carnahan, as a born action director, knows exactly how to set up this man in broad strokes very, very quickly. We understand Ottway within 5 minutes of the film beginning. I am reluctant to describe Carnahan that way, however, because The Grey is not an action film. It is a meditation on manhood, and mortality, and that facet of the film asserts itself with a bravura plane crash sequence, where Ottway and a group of riggers go down in the Alaskan wilderness. The crash is entirely though Ottway's eyes, and it's terrifying. When the fact that any of the men survived the crash, "slamming into the ground at 400 miles per hour," is described as a miracle, you cannot question it.

What follows is a survival thriller the likes of which we really don't see anymore, as a aggressive pack of wolves begin to prey on the crash survivors, and Ottway attempts to lead them to some sort of safety. Scanning the internet, I've seen much hay made of the "realism" of the wolf pack we see here. Here's the way I look at it, the wolves (accomplished via anamatronic puppetry and CGI) are as real, terrifying, and as effectively utilized within the framework of the film, as the shark in Jaws. You never question them, because the film is just too fucking good. What you think after the fact, is irrelevant.

Caranahan shoots the wolf attacks like a horror film, and in several cases left me gasping for air. The direction is so effective, makes the deaths so visceral, combined with the fact that Carnahan, as a screenwriter (along with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, upon who's short story Ghost Walkers, the film is based) understands that if we know the men before somethign happens to them, it will hurt more. It's no slight praise to say that every man who goes down in The Grey, it hurts.

Which is not to say the secondary characters are completely three-dimensional, they're not, but they're also there to reflect on Ottway. It's Ottway's story, Ottway's journey, and the best thing that happened to this film was when Liam Neeson stepped in for Bradley Cooper, who was originally cast as Ottway. Note: I have no problem with Bradley Cooper, per se, but this role needed something that he doesn't have, but Neeson does. Neeson looks, immediately, like you would imagine Ottway to look, and carries himself in a way you'd imagine that man would. He's a man who's traveled hard, long roads, lived to tell the tale, but come to a place where he doesn't want to go on.

I can't tell you how much I loved Neeson in this. He hits every note perfectly, and carries the ball all the way home. I can speculate, as an actor, how much of his own life he drew upon, but, whatever he did, the flashback sequences with his wife are particularly powerful. If that's Neeson drawing on something, or me projecting what I know about him, I do not know, and, frankly, it doesn't matter. It works, beautifully.

At this point, I do have to discuss the ending, because I think, thematically, it's astounding, and extremely moving. I do not want to give spoilers, so I'll just make this a clear as I can...

Anyone who wasn't satisfied with the ending of this film was, and is, a goddamn moron, and apparently utterly oblivious to the well executed thematic content. The way this story is told, the questions it asks, the important conflicts that Ottway is grappling with, are all answered and resolved in the final moments. Powerfully resolved. I had tears rolling down my cheeks. The answers are all in the poem that Ottway's father wrote:

Once more into the fray
Into the last great fight I'll ever know
Live or die on this day
Live or die on this day

That said, the marketing of this film could've been better. It sold the film on imagery that represents about 1% of what happens in the film. It's an exciting, suspenseful movie, but (even bearing in mind my own jokes about this) it is NOT a film about "Liam Neeson punching wolves." It's also been lumped, very unfairly, into the string of action thrillers that Neeson has recently been involved with. Again, the ad campaign didn't help, but be prepared for a film much more meditative, and much more disturbing and cathartic than you might expect.

It's a LONG way to the end of the year, but I expect The Grey will find a place on my 2012 top ten list.

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