‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

The Grey movie poster

I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Mountain Between Us’ Thrives on the Performances of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba

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Watching the trailer for “The Mountain Between Us” got me to thinking about other movies about people surviving a horrific plane crash like “Alive,” “Cast Away,” “The Edge” and “The Grey.” You watch these characters struggle to survive in an environment they couldn’t be less prepared to deal with, and they always prove to be compelling as you wonder what you would do in a similar situation. Even movies like “The Blue Lagoon” and “Swept Away” come to mind as both are about a man and a woman trapped together on a deserted island, and it made me wonder what kind of motion picture “The Mountain Between Us” would end up being. Could it be another story of human beings trapped in a harsh environment which tests their limits of survival, or is it one where two strangers to fall in love in a time and place they otherwise would not?

After watching “The Mountain Between Us,” which is based on the novel by Charles Martin, I can confirm it is a combination of both kinds as it deals with a man and woman stuck in an intensely frigid environment after their charter plane crashes in the High Uintas Wilderness, and it is only a matter of time before they fall for one another even as they do their best to keep their mind on survival and making it back to civilization. What results is nothing new as this is territory has been covered countless times from one decade to the next, and yet it is still a very compelling motion picture regardless of the familiar elements.

The main reason this film works as well as it does is because of its main stars, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. They both are always working at the top of their game no matter what project they appear in, and they work incredibly well off of one another in each scene they share with one another. But more importantly, they are able to render their characters as relatable and down to earth people in ways their individual stardom might otherwise not allow. Winslet and Elba are among the most recognizable movie stars working right now, and this never compromises their work here in my opinion.

Alex Martin (Winslet) is a photojournalist desperate to get back home in time for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney), and Dr. Ben Bass (Elba) is a neurosurgeon eager to get back to patients in desperate need of his assistance. Their flights end up getting cancelled due to a severe weather front approaching them, and yet their desperation overrides the need for safety. Alex, seeing Ben and she have the same problem, join together to enlist the services of Walter (Beau Bridges), a friendly pilot who agrees to fly them to another airport before the weather gets really bad. But as fate would have it, Walter suffers a stroke in mid-flight, and their plane ends up crashing in the frigid wilderness.

I have to give director Hany Abu-Assad credit for his handling of the plane crash sequence. Somehow, he manages to have his camera moving all around the plane’s interior from the back where Winslet and Elba are seated to the front where Bridges is at the controls, and it all looks like it was done in a single shot. Steven Spielberg shot a similar scene in “War of the Worlds” in which his camera went inside and outside of a van as Tom Cruise navigates it through the debris-laden New Jersey highway, but Abu-Assad instead keeps things relegated to the action inside the plane.

Indeed, plane crashes in movies tend to be more frightening when you are made to feel you are inside the airplane to where the director doesn’t bother with many, or any, exterior shots. Considering how Winslet, Elba and Bridges are also in a plane prone to mechanical failure more often than not makes this crash sequence all the more terrifying and brutal. Plane crashes are common in movies, but this one reminded me of the kind which work best on the silver screen.

Alex and Ben are trapped in the icy mountains of Utah and have suffered painful injuries which force them to stay in one place to recuperate and wait for rescue. Their only other companion is Walter’s dog who is quick to warm up, figuratively speaking, to Winslet, but not to Elba. Eventually, they are forced to realize their hopes of rescue are dwindling with each day, and despite their differing opinions on whether they should stay or go, they realize they need one another to make it through the harsh wilderness which surrounds them as it represents their only chance for survival. As the story goes on, we see the obstacles they face are not just physical, but psychological as well.

I liked how Alex and Ben hint at the many disaster pictures they have watched after their plane makes an unexpected and violent stop. Ben is good at fixing up wounds and stabilizing a broken leg, and Alex keeps reminding him about the rule of threes: you can survive 3 minutes without air or in icy water, you can survive 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment, you can survive 3 days without water, and you can survive 3 weeks without food. These rules remain strong in our minds as they face deadly animals and icy temperatures their insulated clothing can only handle so much of.

There were a couple of questions, however, which I couldn’t help but ask while “The Mountain Between Us.” Why was Ben so slow to create an S.O.S. sign outside of the wreckage for approaching planes to see? This would have been the first thing I would have done. Also, these two still look quite well-groomed for people who are in no position to bathe themselves while being lost for weeks at a time. After watching “The Revenant” in which Leonardo DiCaprio and ends up sleeping in a dead horse’s carcass to keep from freezing to death, I couldn’t help but think this movie could have used more in the way of realism. Compared to that Oscar-winning film, Winslet and Elba look to have a bit easier.

Regardless, I still found “The Mountain Between Us” to be very compelling film as Winslet and Elba inhabit their characters with a fearlessness as they are forced to expose one another’s vulnerabilities as their survival comes to depend on knowing more about who they are. Winslet, in particular, has an amazing moment where she tells Elba about a refugee girl she once befriended. The way Winslet plays this scene is incredible as she is able to paint for us a vivid experience of the things Alex experienced to where no cinematic flashback is needed to further illustrate what she has been through. love it when filmmakers trust their actors to where they can deliver moments so fully to where we have all the information we need.

And yes, their characters do eventually fall for one another, but thankfully “The Mountain Between Us” never becomes a romantic tale of the cringe-inducing variety like “The Blue Lagoon” or “Swept Away” (and by that, I mean Guy Ritchie’s god-awful remake). The moment where they first kiss is wonderfully acted as I expected one or both of them to say “we shouldn’t” or something equally silly, but Winslet and Elba still manage to say so much more than words can to where dialogue is not necessary.

Regardless of the flaws inherent in “The Mountain Between Us,” its these two remarkable actors who keep us hooked to where their familiar storyline felt fresher than it would have in the hands of others. While familiarity can breed contempt, and this isn’t the first time we have seen Winslet plunge into icy waters, it never takes away from the story’s power or the terrific performances of its leads. Long before we arrive at the movie’s climax, we come to realize the title not only refers to physical obstacles these characters are forced to face, but the emotional ones as well. Considering how we all build emotional walls over the years, tearing them down can be as hard as climbing a mountain, and I don’t mean Mount Everest.

* * * out of * * * *