Chaotic Nature Joe Carnahan Explores the Minds of the Walking Wounded

City Pulse | January 23, 2012
There’s a strand of “Moby Dick” that runs through director/co-writer Joe Carnahan’s wild and wooly tale of brutal survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Like “Moby Dick,” the amorphous story is an anti-narrative made up dark encounters with nature at her cruelest disposition. The Alpha male leader of a pack of hungry wolves becomes a philosophical focal point for a group of plane-crash survivors attempting to walk out of the vast snow-covered trap they find themselves stuck in. John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is an emotionally broken sharpshooter hired by an Alaskan oil company to protect its workers from bears and wolves that can attack without a moment’s notice. The ever-watchable Liam Neeson more than fills the demands of his troubled character’s wolf-like place as the Alpha to a group of flawed men whose number steadily diminishes.

Joe Carnahan (famous for his uncompromising crime drama “Narc”) puts his audience through a lasting episode of pure terror early on. After briefly contemplating suicide outside an oil refinery’s rowdy bar, John Ottway treasures memories of his eloigned wife while on-board a private airplane filled with oil company workers. Jolts of vomit-inducing turbulence rattle the passengers’ quickly fraying nerves. Just as Ottway falls asleep the plane goes into a fuselage-ripping plunge. Gravity and velocity become monsters of colossal fury. Luggage and bodies are suspended in midair in one of the most spectacular plane crash scenes ever filmed. The effect is truly terrifying. The cinematic experience is as close to the reality of enduring an actual plane crash as you’d ever want to get. Don’t look for “The Grey” to be shown as an in-flight movie. Miraculously, there are survivors amid the strewn luggage, twisted bits of metal, and bloody body parts that corrupt an otherwise peaceful expanse of snow-covered ground. Awakening from one nightmare and into another, eight shocked men begin to pick up items of clothing and supplies they desperately need to go on living. Ottway thinks to collect the wallets of the corpses, to return to their family members if the opportunity ever comes.

The assembly of blue-collar roughnecks runs the gambit. Diaz (Frank Grillo) is a tattooed ex-con whose personal insecurities threaten to undermine Ottway’s evident status as the group leader. Ottway’s thorough knowledge of wolf pack mentality and behavior counsels the group to quickly abandon the crash site in favor of seeking shelter above the area’s distant tree line. The wolves, Ottway believes, are more interested in protecting their territory than hunting down the men as food. Stormy whiteout conditions pose a daunting threat of burying the men in a 40-below-zero grave of snow.

Violent encounters between the wolves and their vulnerable human prey allows Carnahan to dig deep into his bag of action tricks. Blood flies through the air like freezing mists of tempered humidity. The confident helmer displays more of a kinship to Sam Peckinpah’s muscular approach to cinema than any other filmmaker working today. Every gutsy action scene is crafted with gritty detail and a muscular unpredictability that dares the audience to guess where it will end up. Punch-drunk suspense sets in as the film’s subtext of thematic discourse about subjects ranging from self-deception to religious belief to what it takes to be a man get bandied about. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Warrior”) lends his ken eye for magnificent compositions to expertly contextualize the men’s excruciating journey of inexorable attrition.

“The Grey” is an old-fashioned survival movie in the vein of John Huston’s 1956 version of “Moby Dick.” The glory of the adventure comes from what lies buried deep within the psyches of its personalities, and branded in their facial expressions. John Ottway remembers the only poem his stoic father ever wrote as it hung framed on a wall in his dad’s study.

“Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”

You’ll have to see the movie to discern the poem’s meaning for the wealth of import Carnahan and his filmmaking cohorts intend.

Rated R. 117 min. (B+) (Four Stars)

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