May 14, 2012

Blu-ray Review: The Grey

It has been pretty interesting to watch Liam Neeson reinvent himself as a bad ass action star over the past few years. Just look at movies like Taken, Unknown, Clash of the Titans, Batman Begins, The A-Team, the Star Wars prequels, and now The Grey. Now, these are not strictly action films, but there is a certain level of tough guy attitude required for them. With The Grey, Neeson gets to stretch beyond pure action hero and journey into some interesting emotional depths in this reunion with his A-Team director Joe Carnahan. This is a movie that sees old school Neeson pair up with modern day action Neeson to create a character of interest and depth.

The Grey is a contemplative, haunting, thrill ride that sees a reluctant hero struggle with personal demons while also struggling with mere survival in a harsh landscape. Sure, it is pushed forward with what is probably not the most realistic portrayal of a pack of wolves  (I wanted to say wolf pack, but that gives me images of Liam Neeson being hunted by Zach Galifiniakis) ever shown, but as a metaphor it works quite well as the external manifestation of our hero's internal turmoil. In a way, I am reminded of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, which plays like the nightmare of a father losing his children with the fears manifesting as an alien invasion. This movie has its share of thrills, but it is not really about the thrills, they certainly serve their purpose, but there is more to the subtext.

At the center of the story is Ottway (Neeson), a security worker at an oil drilling plant in Alaska. His main job is to keep wolves away. We learn his wife has left him and he is seeing less and less purpose to his life, to the point of contemplating suicide. However, he chooses not to eat the bullet and when his term is up, he gets on the transport plane with the rest of the crew to return to civilization. This is where things turn and he comes face to face with his mortality and with his past.

The Grey is a movie that, on the surface, is a man versus wild tale of survival, a grueling tale of staying alive in the face of certain death. It is a little like The Thing in this regard, if Kurt Russell had to face off with a pack of wolves instead of a shape shifting alien. Here, we get to watch Liam Neeson and a dwindling group of survivors battle across tundra and through woods. It is an exciting ride that keeps an even pace going, leading us through the places they need to go.

Fortunately, The Grey is about more than the surface tale of survival against odds. Writer/director Joe Carnahan and writer Ian Jeffers have created something much more intelligent and emotional. Seriously. Again, the wolves behavior could not be described as typical, but they serve their purpose as a metaphor for internal strife. What makes this whole exercise work is the emotional complexity of Neeson's Ottway and the seemingly insignificant element of his wife, it adds a level of poignancy to his character, thus deepening the overall effect of his struggle. It also helps that the supporting cast is generally solid and bring more believable personalities and conflict to the mix.

There is a definite atmosphere of unrelenting dread. Even if you just watch it as a survival horror tale, it has this ability to get under your skin and get you up on the edge of your seat. The characters are not all stereotypes, they fill certain roles, but they are all treated as individuals, each with their own outlook on the predicament. This helps bring everything to life and increase the reality of their plight. Frankly, I cannot imagine ever being in a similar situation.

The Grey is not the fastest paced movie going, but that does not mean it is slow. Well, maybe it does. The story takes its time unfolding, perhaps making you as restless as the survivors. It gives you time to think about what is going on, reflect on the  opening moments with Ottway and how they relate to what is happening after the crash. It is an intense experience and Ottway is the center of everything. He is the reason we watch, he is the reason we become invested. It is not often we get this blending of survival badassery and emotional poignancy.

I was drawn in right from the start. Liam Neeson brings a commanding presence to the screen, allowing his ability to do action and serious drama to mingle, creating a complex take-charge figure that is also morose and withdrawn. The score, from Marc Streitenfeld, is a wonderful piece conveying action and haunting memory throughout. Plus, it looks great. It may be a departure for Joe Carnahan, but he shows he has the skills to pull off more serious and thoughtful fare.

Audio/Video. The film is presented in a ratio of 2.4:1 and while it does not seem to take full advantage of the high definition format, it does look good and cinematically accurate to what I saw in theaters. This movie has a very real feel to it, and I do not just mean the content. The film is presented with a good deal of film grain and really looks like I am watching film. It is a very pleasing experience for those of us who love the look of film grain. It is most notable in the snow filled sequences. Also of note is the contrast seemingly being turned down to allow greys to overcome the darkness, resulting in murky detail. This looks to be in line with the original intent. This is a good looking disk, but it is not demo material, this is one to look to in order to replicate a more film-like experience, a little gritty, a little murky, but all with great effect and impact.

The audio track is a DTS-HD MA 5.1 affair and it is as immersive as they come. This is a track that really puts you in the unforgiving wilderness with our pack of survivors. The winds swirl around you, the ominous sounds of wolves creep up on you, the explosion of the plane puts you right there. This is a really good track.

  • Commentary. This track features writer/director Joe Carnahan and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann. This is a pretty good track with some goo information on the shoot, particularly the plane crash. It is also interesting to listen to Carnahan criticize past crews and current producers.
  • Deleted Scenes. A lengthy collection of cut sequences, running more than 22-minutes.
Bottomline. This is a really well made film. It is not pure action nor is it pure drama. It is a solid mixing of the two that welcomes cheers for the tough guy moments as well as quiet thoughtfulness in the face of the more emotional moments. I can say it is not what I was expecting when I sat down to watch it and I suspect it will continue to pay off in future viewings.

Highly Recommended.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Grey (2012) on Blogcritics.

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