By Brian Lafferty
January 27, 2012 (San Diego) – Around this time last year, Sanctum hit theaters. Set in a series of frigid, but gorgeous underwater caves, it boasted beautiful cinematography. Unfortunately, it was a dopey survival movie whose sole purpose was to kill off its cardboard characters in gruesome ways.
While watching The Grey I kept thinking, “This was everything that Sanctum was not.” Unlike its watery counterpart, The Grey’s characters are three-dimensional and the performances are true. Above all, it’s genuinely gritty and suspenseful.
Like Sanctum, The Grey strands its characters in a punishingly cold environment, this time in the Alaskan wilderness. Liam Neeson is among the passengers of a crashed plane. He and the survivors battle the forbidding terrain as they attempt to find their way to civilization. When they’re not fighting with each other, they’re forced to unite against a band of angry, territorial wolves that vigorously pursue them. One by one, the number of survivors thins.
The theme of survival is expressed through many little things. The on-location shooting lends an air of authenticity. For at least half the trek, the snow measures about knee-high. Director Joe Carnahan inserts several shots of the men’s legs stepping in and out of the snow. Even one step requires a lot of energy expenditure. It’s difficult enough just walking, but not as much as when they have to run through the open snow to flee a pack of pissed off wolves.
The wolves prove a formidable villain and a highly menacing one. The latter quality is owed to their realistic design. They aren’t cheesy-looking and they don’t have a slick, obvious computer-generated appearance. This is apparent in their heavily detailed furs, their sharp and frequently bared teeth, and their glaring and evil eyes.
In one nighttime scene, the men see in the pitch-black distance a bevy of bright eyes. The chilling effect will be lost on home video.
Carnahan and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi do a lot with the limited color palette. It’s primarily composed of blue, grey, and orange. The former two make up the cold, natural Alaskan wilderness. The orange emanates from the nighttime campfires. Takayanagi imposes the film’s ultra-frigid and unfriendly atmosphere with dark, shadowy lighting and tones.
Further enhancing the vastness of the Alaskan terrain is a plethora of wide shots, including many extreme ones. Coupled with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it emphasizes the endless journey these men must endure if they want to get home alive.
It’s not often that I get to write about a movie’s sound design. There’s only two to three movies a year that contain a remarkable one. In The Grey, it gives a sense of the environment, like the loud gusts of wind that are emphasized through all the speakers as the men tread through the snowstorms. It also gives a sense of the fear they face. In one scene the survivors make it to the forest and are surrounded by the wolves. The surround speakers amplify the howls and growls. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen that takes advantage of the rear speakers and puts the “surround” in surround sound.
I have seen each of Joe Carnahan’s films. He started out with the bold, stylish independent film Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane that tried to imitate Quentin Tarantino. He followed it up with Narc, a more subdued crime drama that was widely acclaimed, but not by me. In Smokin’ Aces, he tried again to be like Tarantino but it ended up being his worst film. The A-Team was the first film of his I totally approved of. The Grey is Carnahan’s best film by far.
The Grey is now playing in local theaters.
An Open Road release. Director: Joe Carnahan. Writers: Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers. Composer: Marc Streitenfeld. Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayanagi. Cast: Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Ben Bray, and James Badge Dale. 117 minutes. Rated R.