27 June 2012

The Grey (2011)

For what turned out to be a trip deep, deep into the heart of existential malaise and hopelessly dangerous travel, this film sure did not tell the truth in its trailers! Throwing Liam Neeson's face on an adventure film poster these days assures the viewer that one will see @$$ kicking justice, feel vindicated parental authority, and hear the warm, gruff brogue that makes it all so soothing, despite the bloodshed. However, upon sitting down, delayed I know, but excited nonetheless, to see this film recently, I found myself deeply disappointed... and then struck by possible revelation!

The studio pitch is perfectly clear in my mind, the director said "My movie is Alive meets Dances With Wolves meets horror movie conventions, with Liam Neeson!" and the studio said "Here's the check!"  A plane full of oil rig workers, on their way to Anchorage from a remote drilling site for a little R&R, crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Only seven survive, one of whom is Ottoway (Neeson), paid by the oil company to keep the wildlife from killing the oil workers with his sharpshooting skills and knowledge of nature. We witness his take-down of a rapidly advancing wolf on a pack of, I'm sorry, on a group of oil workers almost immediately, so we know he's good at his job.  Splice in shots of a now seemingly absent, beloved wife as she and Ottoway lie reclining on snowy white sheets (keep this in mind...), a scene of Ottoway's aborted suicide attempt, and we are primed for a redemption story!

However, on first viewing, the film breaks the sacred contract with American film history and American film audiences and seems to have lost the last twenty minutes of film! For better or worse, the narrative need for faulty characters to be redeemed, for the wrong to be made at least partially right, has carried us forward through cinematic history. From our very foundational American myths, there is the rugged man (and women too, since about 1979) of Adventure Movies who encounters challenge, rises to meet them, succeeds, and goes on to either tell the tale into his old age or have more adventures to come. Yes, some stodgy film critics or pretentious scholars may claim this impulse to break with "tradition" (that of giving the audience an ending that does not involve complete annihilation) as being great, and proving some cinematic verve or unique spirit. But this is not surrealist French cinema attempting re-define genre. It is a Liam Neeson action film!

Thus, when we encounter Ottoway and his team of stereotypes, um, I mean, characters, we think we know what is coming. There is some blurriness to who one or two of the men are, but at root we have the father desperate to get home to family (Dermot Mulroney), the annoying jabber-mouth who talks to cover stress and expresses the strain everyone feels (Joe Anderson, much better in Across the Universe), the Token (Nonso Anozie), the criminal (Frank Grillo), and then a slightly odd character who can only be thought of as Conscious due to a role he plays towards the end of the film (Joe Anderson - I think my father perfectly described him as the DNA splicing of John Ritter and Mark Wahlberg).

The sequence of who is attacked and torn apart by wolves follows no seemingly predictable pattern, and one feels little care for the men beyond the usual bets about who will be the "Final Girl" and how amazingly beautiful, stark, scary, and mesmerizing the scenery is all at the same time. And that is one thing not to be upset about, the film is simply stunning in its depiction of the bitter frosty quality of the Alaskan wilderness, and its simultaneous sublime enchantment. Time is not spent/wasted lovingly caressing tree branches, this isn't a Malick film after all! But we'll say more attention is given to the background than to the men's faces.

(*Read no further if you want to see the movie and be surprised....)

But lovely scenery cannot distract one from the fact that this film managed to inspire feelings of depression and disgust similar to what I felt after seeing Requiem For a Dream - and that is a film about the debilitating, deadly, horrible effects of drug use!! And I'm not the only one to feel this way, as Ebert also makes clear, this is not a pleasant film. The main problem is that upon having one of their number attacked and killed by wolves, the group agrees to the Worst Possible idea (Ottoway proposes it) based on flimsy ideas: to leave the protective cover of the plane's fuselage - remaining in two large pieces by the way - to trek out toward some trees a good mile to a half mile away since they might be in the vicinity of the wolves' den and they might be able to move away from the den if they go to the woods. Oh, and there is a random assertion that the oil company will absolutely not look for them for long, will only send out one or two planes, and may not come their way at all.

Now, only one of the men opposes this idea openly and no one listens to him. And to be clear, at the plane wreckage we are shown: a few trees nearby, long metal pieces (that they use to batter away wolves from Ottoway at one point) - ie weapons, protection from the violent winds, and a defensible metal structure with only two openings they could surely bolster and reinforce. And I'm am the farthest thing from a defender of corporate behavior, but I think that in this current moment the technology is such that, based on the plane being a bit larger than a "puddle jumper" and the presumable regularity of the route, the company can probably figure out where abouts they went down, and will not take the endless weeks (months?) suffered by the Uruguayan soccer team in the 1970s. Additionally, although perhaps difficult to get started, setting a tree on fire nearby themselves would have the double benefit of keeping the wolves away and sending smoke high, high into the sky in an area with no other fires around!

Therefore, the decision to leave the plane feels downright idiotic and a slap in the viewers face considering the above, and there was much pseudo-interactive yelling at the screen about it. None of the events that come to pass - death by being torn apart by wolves, death by falling from a 90degree angle against a tree and then falling 100 feet breaking branches to the ground, death by pulmonary embolism/freezing to death, death by drowning, death by giving up... - would have happened if they had stayed at the plane!

Thus the depressing turn of events is rendered even more so when you realize that No One Makes It Out Alive!! That's right folks, he may have a very particular set of skills, but not even Ottoway makes it out alive! For his end, after he lets the Runner Up die by drowning, he engages in a bout of self-pitying yelling at God to give him a sign and a reason to care, believe, keep going, whatever. When no lightening strikes and the helicopter the movies have programmed us to expect fails to materialize, he gets up and keeps walking only to... Walk right into a Wolf Den! Seeing the head wolf tell the others to stand down cause Ottoway is His, Neeson tapes broken bottles to one hand and a knife to the other hand, then the wolf lunges at him and Roll Credits. Sigh.

Now, after much hateful spilling of vitriol on the film for its shameful assault both on our expectations of Liam Neeson's awesomeness and on the sacred movie myth of survival against all odds, I began looking around for others as depressed as myself with then ending and found possible redemption in one line from a Slant Magazine review. While I disagree with most of  Cataldo's laudatory review, I found sudden possibility in this line:
"[Ottoway] who starts off the film with an abortive suicide attempt. The rest of it plays out almost as if he succeeded..."

Perhaps its the instinctive drive towards the redemptive inculcated by so many movies, perhaps its the narrative habit learned from studying literature, or maybe there is that magic of what is Really Going On at work within this seemingly empty tableau of human male ineptitude in the face of nature.  What I now believe is going on pivots on all of Ottoway's reflecting back on those times in bed with his wife and his awakending after the plane crash. 

We know by the end of the film that his wife has not left him, but has died, so laying on those snowy white sheets with her as she died of some unnamed illness also foreshadows his own laying on the white sheet of snow. Ottoway also states at one point that he was raised by an Irish Catholic father, hence suicide would have been a mortal sin punishable by eternal damnation. Well what is better damnation than for a man who's job entails protecting men from harm to be incapable of doing so? He awakens after the crash alone in a field of white with snow blowing wildly around him, and he must walk a dozen yards or so to look down on the plane wreckage. If you believe that the religious tenants of his faith will structure his afterlife, then the whole movie is the result of Ottoway's suicide the night before the flight. And his hell is one in which every decision he makes causes the death of more men - leaving the ship being the worst and most important. 
Additionally, it is suggested that the random assemblage of survivors represent different pieces of who Ottoway is as well. The nervous but communicative man (who incidentally was the only one arguing for staying with the plane) dies first, out in the open, as the men begin to rely more on physical endurance and less on logic and reason. The Token, sick and coughing constantly, is the memory of his ailing wife who eventually succumbs to disease/cold, and who he is unable to save. The family man dies next by failing to survive his 'leap of faith' across a freakishly deep and broad gorge - his tether a patchwork of clothing pieces from each man, failing to hold him aloft, and allowing him to fall and be eaten by wolves.

We were particularly angry in watching the movie that the Hispanic criminal character simply gives up, and sits down to die after being so strong and determined the entire film. But his death makes sense if he represents the fighter part of Ottoway; the part that wanted to survive and gave up the night before by killing himself. If the criminal is his fighting spirit, then the rest makes much more sense. They even have the same first name: John. 

The next to last man dies by drowning, but only because his foot is stuck in a very easily handled way, but Ottoway does not duck his head under water and pull the man's foot out! So simple, this baptism gone horribly wrong, wherein to just dive under water (he's already soaked wet) and remove his foot from the crack between two rocks - but he doesn't. And just before falling into the water the man confides that he saw Ottoway contemplating suicide the night before and recognized the look in his eyes after seeing it in the criminal man's eyes when he sat down to die a few moments before. He asks Ottoway about the look, and prods him, almost as if he were his Conscious and the final obstacle to Ottoway's end... And his name is Peter by the way. Yes, like St. Peter who stands at the proverbial pearly gates and decides who gets in or not. 

Finally, Ottoway's idea to strike out across the wide open, unprotected, dangerously exposed to the elements and wolves idea is also absolutely sensible if this is a man who had planned to and I believe did commit suicide. One could say that since he was suicidal, his choices may be simply attributable to this fact and not some freaky trip through his own Jacob's Ladder of terror. But, as a man responsible for the survival of others and well versed, presumably, in the survival needs for the region, his decision to leave the craft and offhanded remarks about the company failing to find them is more easily read as part of his punishing afterlife trip than as shamefully poor character development. Bad decisions in life lead to bad decisions in death - now that's narrative structure and character development I can get behind!

So Ottoway could not and was not destined to save the men since he did not save himself the night before. His final showdown with the lead wolf, a supernaturally massive black (of course) beast, also makes sense in this case. A number of reviewers remarked on the fact that the wolves are freakishly large and seeming to enjoy some human levels of reasoning and logic. But if they too are part of Ottoway's hellish punishment, if they are truly the Hounds of Hell, then their stalking and slaughter of these men, these pieces of Ottoway, makes more sense. As does the wolves' decision at the end to treat Ottoway not as a man or prey item, like they treated did the other men, but as another wolf that the current leader of the pack must fight for ultimate supremacy. Then the end is a fight of good versus evil cloaked as a battle of man versus beast. It is really about a Ottoway versus his demons made flesh in the body of these supernaturally ever-present wolves that have wiped out all that represents him and his life. 

Thus the film does not wish to maim our sensibilities by confronting us with the impossibility of survival against all odds every time (even though it may due us humans good to consider death as a possibility occasionally, and act like we have common sense). Instead, the film functions as a meditation on what one man endures because of his lost faith in life, in himself, and in his God after the death of his wife. Far less judgmental than I am perhaps making it seem, but heavy on the meditation. And in this vein, the film is actually pretty fabulous to consider.

Genre: C   (as adventure, its only ok)
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance: B-
Visuals/Audio: B+
Gender Rep: D-
    (only women were dying in flashback or dying as stewardesses)
Narrative: B+    

Overall, Gut Says:  B

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