The Grey is the best kind of horror film. It's been described as
an action film, not unlike the recent ones featuring its star Liam
Neeson. Yet, to me, it's a horror film. It's a horror film where the
monsters are natural rather than supernatural.
Instead of sharing qualities with Neeson's last two action flicks like Taken (2008) and Unknown (2011), this story of a group of men whose plane crashes in the arctic and who have to fend against a wild pack of timber-wolves has just as much in common with monster movies like Alien (1979) or Cujo (1983). The Grey is like those scary movies or slasher flicks. It involves a group of people who become trapped and are picked off one after the other in gruesome ways. In place of a slimy creature or Jason Voorhies, this movie has huge, ravenous dogs.
It was reminiscent of an independent film called Frozen (2010). That movie was about three, college-age kids who become stuck on a ski lift for days. They're suspended in brutally and deadly cold air and below them are hungry wolves ready to rip them to shreds. It's something I rarely say, but director Joe Carnahan's studio picture improved upon that independent movie's essential dilemma and dangers, and even provided more thought-out characters.
The cinematography for The Grey is a bit scrappy, somewhat rough, but in a way that wasn't distracting. It was done in a way that was involving, that drew you in. It starts with Carnahan's camera being right up close to Neeson's face. It wasn't as if Carnahan was zoomed into Neeson. His camera was literally and physically close to Neeson's head, the eye of the lens almost touching the eye of Neeson. I compare it to a recent review I wrote of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan in which Aronofsky did the same thing and where the point was to get into the mind of the main character.
It isn't to the same extent, but, like Natalie Portman's character, Neeson goes through a little bit of a deconstruction. In the movie, there is a question of fear. In one scene, Neeson's character, John Ottway, is talking to one of the other plane crash survivors, a hard-ass named John Diaz, played by Frank Grillo (Guiding Light and Prison Break). Ottway tells that Diaz is afraid but Diaz denies it. Ottway says that being afraid or having fear is a good thing. Later, at the end of the movie, Ottway perhaps changes his view and embraces the thought, "Don't be afraid."
Watching Ottway lose his fear, while gaining a will to live and fight, is not a new arc, but it's well-handled here. It's a wonder sometimes the strength that people can find when stripped bare and all odds are against them. It's a wonder that Ottway doesn't give up when he perhaps has every reason to give up. Yet, he doesn't. He collects the wallets of those that do and keeps going.
Carnahan's camera keeps going with him, even into the water during a thrilling river rush. It's not one of those setups where the camera man is safely on the river bank or a secure boat watching as Neeson struggles in the water. The camera stays literally and physically close to Neeson's head as before. You get the sense that the camera man was struggling in that water too. Thus, the audience gets that same struggle transferred to them. It's effective.
Not to say that this technique is effective every single time. Sometimes, the filmmakers have got to know when to pull back, but Carnahan throws the audience right into it and it works. It was similar to the way that Clint Eastwood throws his audience into a watery scene in his film Hereafter, a sequence that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Carnahan's effects here aren't comparable. It's appreciable more for the emotional effects than anything else.
There are some good effects to this movie, starting with the plane crash. Trying to conjure up recent plane crashes depicted in movies isn't easy. Here, the plane is torn apart and Neeson is in the middle watching it happen. Continuing my horror film comparison, it was about as terrifying as Final Destination. The wolves, however, weren't as much. There were competent jump scares and of course enough gore and bloody snow to satisfy, but the wolves as seen on screen looked a bit lame.
The sound design for this movie was also way too intense and extremely over done. I don't just mean the music, but the noises from the wolves were over-the-top. It was just laughable. The first wolf attack was also laughable, but there was so much good stuff happening here that I laughed it off.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violence, disturbing content, bloody images and pervasive language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 57 mins.