The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Grey

When the trailers for 2011's The Grey were released, I was skeptical but at least a little intrigued. It was another movie that had very talented Liam Neeson being a bad-ass again (Taken, The Dark Knight, Titans), this time fighting wolves in a survivalist story. Then, when it was released, I heard all sorts of arguments and dissension over the ending...mostly, that it was lousy. So Neeson killing wolves with an ending that did its best to divide viewers? Color me curious.

Working for an oil drilling company in Alaska, hired gun and wolf-killer Ottway (Neeson) boards a plane with 20-some oil drillers, the dregs of society as far as anyone is concerned. Flying in horrific weather, the plane crashes in the isolated, desolate wilderness with only seven survivors, including Ottway. Low on both food and water, the survivors try to band together to make it from day-to-day, but there's something else. A pack of wolves is patrolling around the wreck site, and they're not waiting long. Just hours after their arrival, the wolves start attacking the survivors. Can Ottway lead them to safety, or at least hold off the vicious animals until help arrives?

Trailers, commercials and most TV spots built this Joe Carnahan-directed movie as an action-packed thrill ride, a group of supermen doing battle with wolves. Yeah, long story short? That's not the movie this is at all. It is a story about surviving, about battling through extreme adversity, about a will to live when everything in you and around you begs you to give up. Filmed in British Columbia, it is a lonely, chilling story that isn't necessarily entertaining, but I don't think it's supposed to be. By the end of the 117-minute movie, you feel cold, tired, wiped out and just plan exhausted. Yes, the small band of survivors fight wolves, but it's survival. They do so or die. They don't attack. They defend themselves. The will to live is a powerful weapon, one that can be hard to beat.

Going in another more fan-friendly, crowd-pleasing story, Neeson is a perfect choice to play the steely-eyed, cold as ice lead, Ottway. With his sniper rifle, he hovers over the oil sites, protecting the drillers from anything nature can throw at them (in this case, wolves). As we meet Ottway, he's hit his limit and only through a mechanical glitch is he still alive after a suicide attempt. But once the plane crashes and the survivors turn to him and his expertise, he has a reason to live, a reason to keep on fighting. Neeson is a very talented actor, but there's nothing wrong with being very talented and playing roles that are a little fun too. His fellow survivors include Diaz (Frank Grillo), the pessimist, Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the scruffy single father, Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), the rational medic, Flannery (Joe Anderson), the frantic worrier, Burke (Nonso Anozie), the sick survivor, and Hernandez (Ben Bray).

In not doing two hours of continuous wolf attacks, Carnahan has a lot of time (and that's a good thing) to develop the situation. The plane wreck is harrowing without being incredibly detailed, a terrifying ordeal to survive. The aftermath in all its carnage -- including frozen corpses -- is just as gruesome, but it's the more personal, emotional moments that work better. One dying driller (James Badge Dale) is freaking out, looking for someone to tell him he'll be okay, Neeson's Ottway instead being honest with him. He quietly and assuredly explains that death will not be painful, it will be a peaceful moment in a highly memorable scene for Neeson. Later as the survivors trudge across the landscape, several scenes around fires have the men talking about their situation, about life and death, their beliefs. Subtle and moving, they're great scenes. Grillo as Diaz, the doubting (and cynical) Thomas, Mulroney as Talget and Roberts and Hendrick stand out from the group in a good way.

I also feel the need to defend the movie because so many viewers took it upon themselves to rip it, most notably its portrayal of wolves. Basically, wolves -- even packs of wolves -- don't attack humans, they're scared of them. Yes, it's a fair issue, but an unnecessary one that misses the point of the story. This isn't a nature documentary on Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. The wolves are a means to an end, a reason to drive these men to their limits. In the end, they become worthy adversaries, lurking in the shadows and waiting to strike. Carnahan gives them the Jaws-treatment, we rarely see the animals in their entirety. Their attacks are surprising and in a few cases, shocking. Great rivals for Ottway and his motley group of survivors.

And then there's the ending, a finale that did its best to divide the viewers. As the movie develops, I'm trying to figure where 'Grey' was heading. Is it all a dream? Were they all killed in the crash? I can thankfully say....NO, no dreams, hallucinations or metaphorical looks at life and death. The ending instead is ambiguous to a point (and watch through the credits for a quick follow-up scene). For me, it's a moving, appropriate ending, one that isn't ambiguous in the least. But it doesn't spell every little thing out for you, and ta-da! Viewers are pissed! How you come away from this one? Personal taste and judgment I suppose. I liked the ending a lot, even more so the more I think about it. Carnahan has carved a nice tough-guy movie niche for himself, and he continues it here. Not what it was as advertised as, but it's better because of it.

The Grey <---trailer (2011): ***/****

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