Liam Neeson punches wolves. That's not just an idiom for how awesome he is--though for all I know that's how he gets a workout. But Neeson, at one point in Joe Carnahan's taut, often stunning new film The Grey, literally punches a wolf. Calm down PETA, not a real one*.
Neeson has always been a genre actor with classical chops, but somewhere along the line I realized I'd been watching this guy for most of my life. When he played Zeus in the 2010's remake of Clash of the Titans the irony wasn't Neeson playing Sir Laurence Olivier's role, but that Neeson wasn't in the original film with Olivier. While I'm pretty sure he wasn't an extra in the original Star Wars, he still wound up being a Jedi.
And Joe Carnahan, clearly steeped in decades of the same cinematic influences, uses Neeson to meld brutal, genre filmmaking that nearly perfectly reflects the actor Liam Neeson has become over the last 30 years, from Darkman to Oskar Schindler.
The Grey finds him as a wolf sniper named Ottoway, holed up at a northern Alaskan oil rig, employed to protect the drillers from getting eaten by rogue wolves on the hunt. Ottoway is on the verge of suicide, drinking his last rounds, reciting a poem his father wrote as he slips the oily muzzle between his teeth, when some distant howls change his mind--a mind wallowing in the memories of his presumably ex-wife.
Instead of dying he winds up on a plane back to Anchorage, flying home with the returning drillers, when fate takes over. It quickly becomes clear that the plane is in trouble and soon enough it crashes into the desolate Alaskan tundra.
The survivors quickly assess their hopeless situation while their archetypes unfold. Flannery (Joe Anderson) is the self-aware motor mouth, dim but basically a nice guy; Henrick (Dallas Roberts) is the spiritual shepherd, while Talget (Dermot Mulroney) acts as the world weary diplomat. Ottoway becomes their de facto leader, after the wolves begin to attack, which brings him into conflict with Diaz (Frank Grillo), a tough talking ex-con who doesn't buy into Ottoway's program. Ottoway corrects Diaz ("I'm going to beat the living shit out of you in the next five seconds") and leads them to the wilderness, only to discover that the brutal wolves and savage landscape take their toll.
First and foremost, The Grey is a tough guy actioner, but one with more depth--for the better, mostly--than its forebears in the man vs. wild genre. Director Joe Carnahan, sharing the writing duties in adapting the short story "Ghost Walker" with its author Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, imbues the film with characters who are more fully rendered than usual -- constructing scenes that give them weight and tangibility as the layers of their lives get peeled back and eventually snuffed out.
You Can't PETA Wolf
While most of them aren't around long enough to have arcs, it's the survivors who become exponentially more rewarding as Carnahan and Jeffers mercilessly thin the herd. Combined with the adept performances of its cast--particularly Neeson, Mulroney and Grillo -- The Grey is a fine juxtaposition of character and theme, distilling survival, love and camaraderie against the impassive brutality of nature in what is ostensibly an action film. While it's occasionally clunky in its sentimentality -- Carnahan sometimes struggles with emotional subtleties -- it's invariably genuine, the characters never feeling disposable; adding to the sense of loss when the inevitable occurs. Carnahan is, in essence, trying to tug heart strings in a fairly uncompromising picture and mostly succeeding despite the film's somewhat telegraphed moments.
But Carnahan directs the shit out of The Grey. I hate clichéd phrases like "This movie will have you on the edge of your seat," but The Grey often does just that. During the plane crash sequence, Carnhan's use of frame and sound design invokes palpable dread as the camera claustrophobically quakes with the turbulence; while the sound design, both foreboding and cacophonous, progressively builds a sense of terror. The climax is a lesson in aural ruthlessness that firmly implants the collective fear of what it would be like to die in a plane crash. It's almost Hitchcockian in its expertise.
On top of that, The Grey was shot in winter and in Canada, under sometimes brutal environmental conditions. Again the sound design kills it, pricelessly augmenting Carnahan's often gorgeous visuals as these actors trudge through actual blizzards and horrid, sub-zero weather, the wind and the wolves howling.
Ultimately, The Grey recalls a strangely Herzoglian atheistic. The master is surely an influence on Carnahan here though he doesn't quite connect on the same philosophical level. But, logistically at least, this is a distant cousin to Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
And if that sounds like high praise, that's because it is.
*There is controversy amongst animal activists because a.) the film casts wolves in a realistic light -- try petting one -- and b.) the production purchased two dead wolves from a local trapper. Apparently, one was eaten by the cast in a scene that makes total sense given the film's reality. The other is used as a fairly gruesome prop. Judge how you will. But both pissed off PETA -- follow Carnahan's rebuttal Tweets--while cementing the unreality of the cheesy looking CG and practical wolves that are the biggest flaws in The Grey's otherwise amazing production design.
Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker
If Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's amazing adaptation of Let the Right One In said anything about the director's style, it's that his controlled atmosphere during an '80s set vampire film, combined with his eye for deliberate narrative subtleties and detailed performances, is relentlessly and profoundly cinematic. Having read the book, the economics of Let the right One In's adaption seemed particularly adept.
Set loose on the adaptation of John le Carré's bestselling Cold War espionage tale, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alfredson proves once again to be a master of tone and atmosphere, if not confidently understated plotting. Tinker Tailor isn't about action as much as it is the simmering moments that lead to it.
Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a former top level British intelligence agent who is purged from the "Circus" along with his boss, Control (John Hurt) after a botched mission that gets another agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) seemingly killed. Prideaux had been tasked by Control to bring in a Russian informant with "treasure": information regarding a mole at the highest levels of British intelligence.
Smiley -- without any official sanction -- takes up the hunt, the rabbit hole leading him to a freelance agent on the run, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) who holds the key to the mystery Prideaux died trying to uncover.
To give away too much more about the plot of Tinker Tailor would subvert the joys of its wonderfully atmospheric secrets, as Smiley (rendered in a typically great, chameleon-like performance from Oldman) methodically and intelligently gets to the heart of the mystery.
Director Alfredson, working from a screenplay by Bridget O'Conner and Peter Staughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats) nails the tone of early 7'0s, Cold War thrillers, while his distinct visual sense is brought to bear by the gorgeous cinematography of his go to lens man, Hoyta Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In). Alfredson's confident direction is almost a character in itself.
The cast is superb, and well chosen, with Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones and Mark Strong turning in fine performances. But this is ultimately Oldman's flick and his George Smiley is a great example of how subtle Oldman (who's known for some over-the-top roles) can be. He just becomes George Smiley as seamlessly as he became Sid Vicious. And despite the vast difference in those characters demeanors, the level of detail remains the same. Oldman just owns it, and the stellar supporting cast is icing on the cake.
It's a deliberately paced film, filled with non-linear details that do not fully reveal themselves immediately, practically demanding a repeat viewing. But for those who appreciate the darkly nostalgic tone of Eastern European-tinged and intricately plotted thrillers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a welcome ally.
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