I've gotten off to a slow start when it comes to 2012 releases. Despite the stereotype that January and February are wastelands (save for films expanding from limited release or foreign films finally making post-Oscar theatrical debuts), there have been quite a few films that have caught my attention. Unfortunately, many will have to wait for DVD (sorry, Haywire), given how sluggish I've been. However, last night I was able to finally make it to my second release of the new year, and thankfully it was a marked improvement from The Woman in Black.
Despite not being much more than decent, Joe Carnahan's The Grey is a big step forward in the director's career, and a refreshingly solid piece for star Liam Neeson. Having previously directed Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, I went into Carnahan's latest expecting yet another Neeson-driven action flick, albeit one set in the wilderness. Yet despite the sizable helping of violence in the film, The Grey represents a more mature effort from Carnahan; here's hoping the trend continues.
The premise of The Grey is simple: following a horrific plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, 7 oil workers must fight for their survival, facing off against nature in the forms of weather and a nasty pack of wolves. And, for the most part, the execution is straightforward. Yet perhaps its the general absence of crazy, kinetic energy that aids The Grey, despite its somewhat predictable path. There are any number of strikingly long shots, many of which steadily intensify both the emotion and the atmosphere. And even though there are any number of violent confrontations with the group's lupine adversaries, Carnahan balances these with scenes occasionally punctuated by the wolves' howling. The animals don't just pop out of nowhere (barring a few jump scares); we get to see how they work as they try to whittle away at the group's stamina (as well as their numbers).
So even though the characters - Neeson excluded - aren't exactly fleshed out save for expositional details, we as an audience do feel a sense of community among them, despite the presence of the obligatory trouble-maker (Frank Grillo). That said, the ensemble each have some solid moments, but nothing that a bunch of amateurs couldn't have accomplished. Neeson, in a refreshing turn, gives some of his best work of the past few years. It's not up there with the actor's best work, but considering his recent run of blockbusters and throwaway action fare, it's something. The actor possesses an inherently commanding persona, yet here he's actually given material that forces him to do more than coast on said persona. The only questionable aspect of the performance is the fact that Neeson seems to cover up his Irish accent, only for it to slip out further down the line. The film does later tell us that Ottway is, in fact, Irish, but it feels like a hastily thrown in addition to the script, as though Neeson said to hell with faking an American accent midway through production.
And speaking of production, that's where the other key strengths of The Grey are found. Masonobu Takayanagi's photography has some truly sublime moments, and keeps the tundra locales from becoming dull or repetitive. In the aural departments, Marc Streitenfeld's score, despite a few beats that come on too strong, lends the film's funereal narrative some needed energy, particularly in the slight cop-out of an ending. Less successful are the special effects, which don't quite bring a convincing enough edge to the wolf pack hunting the protagonists down. In close-ups the animals look fine, but in wide shots they look like they belong in the cartoony and stylized world of Zack Snyder, which couldn't be further from the rest of Carnahan's film. Much better are the more practical effects, including two excellent bits involving Ottway being, quite literally, ripped from his dreams.
Yet despite some inspired moments and strong aspects, The Grey isn't quite as powerful as it strives to be. From quite an early point after the plane crash, you'll realize that it doesn't matter what the outcome is, merely in what order the demises occur. The ending undoes some of this, and it creates a compelling moment out a scenario that both sinks your stomach and makes you shake your head at the enormity of the coincidence happening. Somewhere within The Grey, there was a truly harrowing tale of survival, but Carnahan's film seems caught between artistic inclinations and action-oriented storytelling to maximize its potential. Not a bad film (disregarding the wolves, that is), but one whose merits are knocked down by an overall sense of settling for little more than adequacy.