In an effort to add some cultural variety to this blog, I’ve decided to publish the occasional film and book review on it. Here’s the first of these.
It’s said that the tastiest meals are the ones cobbled together from yesterday’s leftovers. Released earlier this year, The Grey – starring Liam Neeson, directed by Joe Carnahan and produced by (amongst others) the blockbuster-movie-making Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley – has ingredients that have obviously been lifted from several old thriller and horror dishes in the cinematic refrigerator. But it manages to be a filling and nourishing dish in itself, even if the taste it leaves in the mouth is far from sweet.
Neeson plays Ottway, a marksman who works for an oil company in the Alaskan north, protecting oil workers from natural predators while they toil amid the snow. Finishing a work-shift, Ottway joins a planeload of off-duty workers flying to Anchorage. However, en route, the plane crashes in the middle of nowhere and only Ottway and half-a-dozen others survive. They then have to traverse miles of uninhabited and freezing snow-plains, forests, rivers and mountains in the tenuous hope of reaching civilisation. Unfortunately, they not only have to contend with the elements, but with a murderous pack of grey wolves, whose breeding territory they have landed in the middle of. Pissed off at these human intruders, the wolves prowl behind them and along the fringes of their vision, intent on picking them off one by one.
The twist is that Ottway – thanks to a recent trauma in his personal life – was on the point of suicide before boarding the plane. Yet when faced with killer wolves and the prospect of hypothermia, he becomes determined to keep himself and his co-workers alive. However, it soon becomes clear that their mental and physical frailties are as much of a threat to their survival as the wolves are.
Even from this brief synopsis, it’s easy to see borrowings from earlier films. The plane-of-oilmen-downed-in-the-wilderness scenario brings to mind Robert Aldrich’s 1965 adventure classic The Flight of the Phoenix, while watching the characters struggle through an unrelentingly hostile and claustrophobic icy setting it’s impossible not to think of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing. The wolves, who unlike their human quarry are obviously at home in the environment, remain unseen for long stretches of the film and their invisible but continually-lurking presence ticks a couple of other movie boxes – the malevolent hillbillies in John Boorman’s Deliverance, for instance, or the vengeful Cajun hunters in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort. And the flesh-crawling wolf-howls that pepper the film’s soundtrack have, of course, featured in half of the gothic horror movies ever made.
But despite the familiarity of these plot elements, Carnahan and his cast do a very good job. They don’t put a foot wrong in building up tension and atmosphere, and the unpredictably of what is going to happen next, and to whom, adds to the suspense. (Though at one point a character did deliver an emotional and revealing speech that enabled me to guess how he would exit the movie later on.) However, the escalating horror of the men’s plight – surviving a devastating air-crash, then battling hunger and hypothermia, and then having to withstand wolf attacks – will be too gruelling for some viewers. Even the venerable and presumably battle-hardened American film critic Roger Ebert confessed that after seeing The Grey he was too upset to watch any more movies that day.
Some critics have mentioned the film’s philosophical tone. There’s a throwaway reference to the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man – Werner Herzog’s elegiac but disturbing meditation on humanity’s place amid nature – and the characters have a few discussions about What It All Means between wolf assaults. However, the philosophising doesn’t reach any conclusions beyond the ones that life sucks and that God’s a bastard if He exists at all. Which are probably the conclusions I would come to in the same circumstances.
Carnahan is well served by his cast, whose faces (apart from Neeson’s) aren’t well-known, adding to their believability as ordinary Joes dumped in a horrendous situation. (Dermot Mulroney plays one of them, admittedly, but I didn’t recognise him. He’s aged a bit since the days of Young Guns.) Neeson himself is extremely good. In the past I haven’t rated him that much as an actor, mainly because of his thick Northern Irish brogue that dogs him no matter what character he plays – Germans (Schindler’s List), Scotsmen (Rob Roy), Jedi knights (The Phantom Menace), they all sound like they’ve just stepped off a bus from Ballymena in County Antrim. But he brings a real intensity to the role of Ottway. At the beginning of the movie he agonises over whether or not to stick his rifle-barrel in his mouth and end it all, while much later he bellows in fury at the sky and at a seemingly sadistic God, sounding like a disenchanted Reverend Ian Paisley. One can’t help but wonder if this intensity comes from the similarities between Ottway’s back-story and the snowy landscape and the tragedy that befell Neeson in real life in Quebec in 2009.
There’s one criticism I have to make, however, concerning the film’s portrayal of wolves as ruthless and relentless killers. This has infuriated American environmentalists, who’ve pointed out that the grey wolf is really a shy creature and a human passing through its territory would run a greater risk of being struck by lightning than being bitten by one. (As the grey wolf has recently been removed from the Endangered Species Act in several western American states, and as a recent candidate for the office of American Vice President had a well-publicised fondness for shooting wolves from helicopters, environmentalists are understandably touchy about the subject at the moment.) And I have to say that the behaviour and intelligence displayed by the wolves in The Grey seem unlikely in the extreme – at times, with Ottway talking ominously about breeding dens and about an ‘alpha male’ wolf that appears to be orchestrating the mayhem, it sounds like the wolves have spent their free time studying a DVD of James Cameron’s Aliens. Furthermore, during the attack sequences, they appear so pumped-up, slavering and generally monstrous that they look less like wolves than like the beastie in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London.
Here’s what the website wolfwatcher.org has to say about the matter: http://wolfwatcher.org/news/all-news/the-movie-the-grey-wolfwatcher-has-an-insiders-look/.
Wolves are my favourite wild animal, so I’m not that happy myself about how they are depicted here. But I guess that if film studios had always tried to treat people and animals fairly, an awful lot of classic movies would never have been made. If, for example, Hollywood had been sensitive towards the feelings of Italian-Americans, we wouldn’t have got the Godfather movies, or Mean Streets, or Goodfellas. If British filmmakers had respected the sensibilities of the Zulu nation, we wouldn’t have got that marvellous action epic Zulu in 1964. And if Steven Spielberg had wanted to be nice to sharks, Jaws wouldn’t have swum our way in 1976. So I will forgive The Grey for its wolf-demonisation because it’s a quality film – if a zoologically inaccurate one.
And as much as I like wolves, I would still really hate it if I found myself at a plane-crash site in northern Alaska surrounded by the bloody things.
As a footnote, I should mention that near the end of the film, Liam Neeson’s character says that his first name is John. His name’s Ottway, John Ottway! At this point I laughed – indeed, it was the first laugh I’d had since the film’s grim litany of aircrash-carnage and wolf-killings began. The name won’t mean anything to international audiences, or to 99.9% of British ones, but John Otway is the name of an obscure, punky and eccentric-bordering-on-insane singer-songwriter from Buckinghamshire in England. His song Really Free was a minor hit in Britain in 1977 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkYOZyNocrw). He didn’t have another hit until 25 years later, in 2002, when he reached number 9 in the British singles charts with an effort called Bunsen Burner (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWOzQE9Isek). The real John Otway, then, could teach Liam Neeson a thing or two about survival in the wilderness.