How wrong they and I were. I should have known that Joe Carnahan would deliver something much better than that and you don't really expect Liam Neesom to pick up a poor film - yes let's ignore the cash job of Clash of the Titans.
I am a fan of Carnahan and I do have to admit that he's surprised me here with The Grey. This is not really the film I was expecting and it's much better for it.
At the end of one of their working seasons they head off to Anchorage by plane but over the wilderness disaster strikes and the plane goes down, killing all onboard but for a handful of men.
Exposed to the elements Ottway quickly realises that if they don't get moving they're all going to die. As they start to get a fire going and find provisions they realise that they aren't alone. A pack of hunting wolves are close by and have started picking off the dead, but they've found a newer, fresher source of food and what's more they have encroached on the wolves' territory and now the creatures are out to defend it.
The opening of the film instantly sets the tone and, although you might not yet realise it, it tells us that it won't be what you expected. You might have, like I did, expected a standard introduction to get us to the plane crash and into the start of the story, but that's not what we see. What we do see is a short examination of the lead character that captures our emotions and connects us with him with just a few short scenes. It's more than just connecting with the character though, the emotional involvement is surprising for so early on in a film, and it had me within moments.
There were four elements to this opening that made it so special. One is Liam Neesom, the other is the script he's given, then there's the editing, and finally, and I think most importantly, is the sound.
The scripting is really good and very convincing from the outset especially for Neesom's character. It captures your imagination and makes you believe in the character's state of mind, coupled with Neesom's excellent performance which is as strong and as open as ever - he's such an expressive and natural actor it's just so easy to believe him and believe the character's pain.
The editing of the whole opening sequence is slightly unusual as well, I can't put my finger on exactly why but the focus is on Ottway while we're being shown his heart through the words he's writing, through the background we're learning who he is and what he's doing.
Pull all this together and we have a superb opening to the film that places us right where we need to be with the character and the story. I loved the way it told that opening of the story and the way Neesom played it.
There are some great visual moments through the film and they begin early on with Neesom protecting oil workers and the camera movement around the bar fight, but the visual style really does come to the fore during the flight and crash sequence.
It's another way that the film seems to break a little from expectations and conventions, delivering something a little different to show something that we've seen a good few times before.
I loved the way the crash scene built, there wasn't a single big bang then complete chaos but instead we had a number of bangs, creaks and nervous moments, each doing a great job of unnerving the audience and pulling them closer and closer to the edge of their seats. I loved that this was built rather than just happening and having one big crash.
Also we get a sense of how aware the character is of events around him as when the crash really begins we follow his eyes as he catches glimpses of moments that build to the realisation that they are going down and his solution to what is about to happen. Straight away we see that he's going to be a resourceful and driven man and his previous personal feelings have changed moving towards the character we'll see for the rest of the film.
Through the rest of the crash we stay with the perspective of Ottway rather than showing some huge action sequence. It's an aspect of the film that gives it a strong core even after the crash and we come across the devastating scene of the accident we remain with the perspective of Ottway.
This happens throughout the film as instead of seeing an outside view, perhaps seeing the wolves themselves outside of the group of survivors or wide sweeping vistas showing where the two packs are and where they have to travel, we are always with Ottway and the men, seeing events from their perspective and taking a leaf out of all the best creature films as we see little of the actual creature and keep the perspective close to the men, increasing the fear of the unknown.
There's another aspect that really works from the script and it's rather subtlety done, something I'm sure a lot of people who don't think highly of Joe Carnahan's work will be surprised to hear mentioned, and that's the mirroring of the pack of wolves with the group of men.
Actually it's not too subtlety done to begin with, the first scene where we hear the wolf pack leader take down a challenge is closely followed by a mirroring scene to show that the men are also behaving in a similar way, but from there on the references are far more subtle and it's more about the feeling of the two packs and far less about men versus wolves. This is one of the ways in which the film gets over that strange idea and makes the story work on a much more human and emotional level.
What's incredibly subtle, and in my mind is far more interesting to reflect on, is what happens as a result of the pack leader challenge within the group of men and what were the real motives behind Ottway's actions. He clearly knows who the wolves are going to assume is the pack leader and the question here is does he make this choice deliberately or do the wolves make the wrong assumption? Suddenly it presents a far more interesting depth to his character.
What it also does is present the wolves as a far more intelligent and considered creature, and so when Diaz shouts back at them something along the lines of "who's the animal now?" it does start to resonate within you and it's around this time you find yourself starting to think of the wolves as much less a creature and more a villain.
One more thing I want to expand on from back when I talked about the elements of the film that made it so special is the sound design. There are numerous examples of the background sound just cutting out and changing to a soft score allowing the focus to turn on the characters or showing the state of mind of the character in focus in that scene. It was a wonderful way to pull the audience into that moment and multiply the power of the scene or of the words.
It's not just as the score or lack of background audio where it stands tall, but the sounds of the wolves are so incredible that they will send a chill up your spine as they howl in the darkness around the camp. The sound design did a fantastic job here and it really stood out for me as being a strong driving tool for the film.
Equally the editing and the decisions of when and where to use flashbacks were as complimentary to the film as the sound design, more importantly the ripping back and forth between Ottway's main flashback and the real world were expertly used and never overused.
There are other actors besides Neesom that need a mention, the rest of the human pack with Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts and Frank Grillo were all strong. Grillo as Diaz who does have a strong character to play with a great turnaround and performance; the film isn't all about Neesom's Ottway.
Neither is it just about men escaping a pack of wolves, nor the mirroring of the two packs, nor indeed is it just about loss. I saw a great deal in this film about faith and hope, and by that I don't mean the religious kind, although Ottway has some excellent lines near the end that do touch on the religious when he pleas to above and then realises that he's just going to have to do it myself.
The film opens with a man who has lost faith and hope in everything, including himself, and it takes the crash and the responsibility of organising and protecting people to realise that perhaps all is not lost and that he does have faith in himself and hope for the future. It's this that fuels him on and makes him realise that he himself will have to fight for what he wants, no one else will help him, and the threat of death for so long has renewed his desire for life. That's certainly how I interpreted his story and how it feels when I reflect on the film.
Okay, flaw time. I'm going to pick a few moments where I found some problem with the film, but interestingly the film itself counters most of them and turns it around.
The first for me was the decision to leave the plane. It's a standard horror/thriller mistake, like heading off into the attic alone, however the film has it covered in the more than logical argument with the survivors - they could well be in proximity to the den of the wolves in which case they will kill them all; it could be that they are just within their hunting ground and so leaving could save them; there is tree cover further away providing more possibilities of survival; and in the end Ottway just admits that he really doesn't know but his decision is to move.
This was a discussion point with us after the film, was it a flaw or was it the characters genuinely debating what to do? For me it was the latter and I think the film had it covered perfectly with natural dialogue and characters doing what felt natural.
There was a little discussion about the cliff scene and how the wolf pack was there so quickly, but I felt satisfied that the story covered that later without me having to query it, by this time I was with the story and the real issue was the leap itself.
The last query for me revolved around the very end and where the character ends up. This was a surprise to me and I'm on the fence about whether it was a little too contrived or perhaps it was again showing that there was much more intelligence to the wolves. I naturally took the second option along with the film, although there was a moment where I wrestled with the idea in my head but that was soon pushed away by the events.
The film ended with two great scenes that really capped the film off wonderfully for me. The first is the perfect editing and direction on the last flashback, showing us just what we needed and no more or less. The second was the closing scene itself where it ended right on the money. I was willing the film not to continue, pleading with it not to lose all it had delivered so far, and it ended right there and then. I was so pleased that I almost cheered.
Oh, and before I wrap up this review, I just have to tell you that you need to stay until the end of the credits. I love post-credit scenes, it's like a little reward for those who are willing to stay behind and see all the names of the people involved, and there's one with The Grey.
As usual when I write a long review of a film there's only one of two things to blame, either it's a terrible film or it's a cracking film. With The Grey this is quite clearly the latter.
As I've said there are a number of key elements that make this film so strong. There's the scripting that manages to deliver what feels like genuine dialogue in genuine moments backed by an equally genuine and believable performance from Liam Neesom delivering some great lines such as the "I'll just have to do it myself" moment near the end and his powerful opening monologue.
There are some excellent decisions around the direction and editing of the film, the flashbacks, the crash, the perspective of the film. Plus there's the strong sound design that emphasises so many of the feelings and increases the power of some of the scenes.
The Grey is a lot more of a film than you might think, avoiding clichés and giving us a much thicker and more emotionally powerful story that has as much to do about faith, hope and humanity as it does about men versus the wilderness and the wolves.