Friday, January 27, 2012

The Grey: Dull, tedious and colorless

The Grey (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for strong, gory violence and pervasive profanity
By Derrick Bang

Once upon a time, survival dramas were about precisely that: survival.

The courageous triumph of the human spirit. The resourceful — and ultimately successful — struggle to overcome adversity. If necessary, the noble sacrifice of a brave few, to save the remaining many.
Having survived a horrific plane crash, John Ottway (Liam Neeson) circles the
wreckage, seeking supplies that will help him and the few other survivors. As
it turns out, though, those who perished in the crash were the lucky ones; the
rest are about to be stalked by ferocious killer wolves.

Whether treated with grim seriousness (Deliverance) or as a pop-culture sub-genre — think back to all the high-profile 1970s “disaster flicks” — we always cheered the survivors who made it off the snow-covered mountain, or out of the inhospitable forest, the arid desert, the capsized ship or the burning building. It’s the ultimate wish fulfillment; we love to imagine being that heroic, that clever, that victorious.

But somewhere along the way — quite recently, during the past decade — survival films turned into snuff flicks: mainstream cousins of the horror genre’s “doomed teenager” twaddle, where the point is not to celebrate life, but to revel in gory death.

Think back to 2003’s Open Water, when we spent the film’s entire 79 minutes waiting for its two attractive stars to be eaten by sharks. Which they were. Or last year’s underwater caving snuff flick, Sanctum, which followed the more common formula: Only one gets to survive. Everybody else dies, and always stupidly, pointlessly and without the faintest semblance of valiant self-sacrifice.

Just like the nameless, faceless kids who get whittled down to one lone hold-out, in series such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Final Destination.

I’ll leave it to sociologists to discuss what this says about us as a society, in these early days of the 21st century, but I find it rather depressing.

The Grey is just such a film: dreary, hopeless and disheartening. No nobility here. No rewards for hard work or the determined application of human spirit. Just slaughter, with another victim checking out every 15 minutes or so.

The sole difference: Instead of a hockey-masked serial killer, a razor-fingered phantasm or Death itself, the monsters here are wolves.

Regular, normal Alaskan grey wolves.

While it’s true that wolves occasionally have attacked people — very rarely, and almost always when rabid or provoked by stupid human activity — anybody with an ounce of sense can see that the “wolf behavior” infecting this film is atrociously, insultingly false. Indeed, this story is guaranteed to enrage those who decry the bad rap that wolves continue to receive ... which, based on the self-serving remarks made within the press notes, probably will delight director/co-scripter Joe Carnahan.

“I was never trying to portray wolves as vicious killers,” he claims in the press notes, with an apparently straight face.

Right. This, while discussing a film whose first kill occurs as a wolf charges a man relieving himself, leaving us to imagine what gets chomped off first. Tasteful, that.

The worst part is that Carnahan and co-scripter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers — on whose short story, “Ghost Walker,” this film is based — could have addressed this problem, at least to a degree, by having protagonist John Ottway (Liam Neeson) stare aghast, after the first kill, and say, “My God, they must be rabid; normal wolves simply don’t behave that way!”

Such an observation would have been quite logical, since Ottway is presented as an authority on wolves. But no, we’re simply supposed to swallow the notion that regular ol’ wolves will pursue these fellas with the maniacal bloodlust of ... well, of werewolves. Hell, even that would have made more sense.


The contemporary story opens at an Alaskan oil refinery, where hard-living men — many of them ex-cons — work grueling five-week shifts 24/7, followed by a two-week vacation shift. Ottway is a sharpshooter, hired by the refinery managers to protect the oil workers from attacks by bears, canines and “other wild beasts” ... such as the wolf that charges out of the woods at one point, bearing down on a small group of men.

Because wolves do that, y’know.

Ottway handles that minor incident with no trouble; he has a tougher time enduring painful memories of a wife from whom he has been separated by unspecified circumstances. Indeed, at one point Ottway comes perilously close to sending a bullet into his own brain.

Neeson projects this sort of anguish quite credibly; without knowing this guy at all, we quickly feel for him. (So far.)

The spell passes; Ottway chooses life. A day or two later, he boards a plane with several dozen guys eagerly anticipating their next fortnight of R&R. The plane takes off, plows into a brutal storm a few hours later, then crashes: a helluva sequence that’ll terrify viewers predisposed to be nervous about flying.

The crew and most of the passengers are killed on impact; eight men survive. Cell phones are plentiful but fail to pick up signals. Supplies are meager; Ottway, easily adopting the role of designated leader, gets some fires going but realizes that staying with the wreckage is unlikely to help. He suggests slogging south, hoping to find civilization.

Night falls; the first of the eight gets eviscerated as mentioned above. From that point forward, Ottway and the others are — and here I’m quoting from the aforementioned press notes — “pursued by a pack of mysterious, almost mystical wolves practically prehistoric in their size and ferocity.”

Whatever floats your boat, Joe.

The other men are cardboard ciphers distinguished solely by single behavioral tics: the sociopath (Frank Grillo, as Diaz); the nice guy who — of course — wears glasses (Dermot Mulroney, as Talget); the big, burly fellow with respiratory issues (Nonso Anozie, as Burke); the whiner (Joe Anderson, as Flannery); and the philosopher (Dallas Roberts, as Henrick).

Don’t expect to learn anything about these fellows; Carnahan doesn’t believe in back-story. The film lurches through its (much too long) 117 minutes because of wolf attacks, frequent bickering and many, many scenes of parka-garbed men slogging through snow. Aside from Neeson, characterization is wholly absent, and since most of the cast members aren’t familiar faces, you’ll likely not even know who just got mauled (“Who was that?”) until the group is down to a more manageable four or five.

The clumsy, soggy script kicks into life only once, as the men face the challenge of navigating their way off a cliff that overlooks a river far below. Here, finally, Carnahan and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellman inject some genuine tension into their film. The rest is just carnival funhouse nonsense, with ferocious wolves suddenly leaping into the frame, at tight close-up, solely to make viewers jump.

Carnahan’s sole (limp) effort at character depth occurs with Ottway’s occasional flashbacks, dreams and memories of his wife (an angelic Anne Openshaw): images that inevitably foreshadow Something Bad Happening. This becomes unintentionally comical; maybe if Ottway stopped thinking about her, the situation would get better!

In fairness, Carnahan hasn’t built his career on thoughtful drama; the Sacramento native made his rep with 1998’s audaciously vicious Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, and most recently has delivered Smokin’ Aces and the big-screen adaptation of The A-Team. They’re all gleefully violent cartoons made by a guy who clearly belongs to the Quentin Tarantino school of wretched excess. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Carnahan’s other films also aren’t boring, which cannot be said for The Grey. He needs the much more opulent tapestry provided by big cities and all the other trappings of civilization; he hasn’t the slightest idea how to make anything visually interesting about this dull, dreary, snow-bound waste of time.

Grey, indeed. If cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi darkened things just a little more, we wouldn’t be able to see anything. Which would be an improvement.

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