Tuesday, February 14, 2012

THE GREY: Teaching Americans to Spell Properly, and Being Bloody Entertaining While Doing It

THE GREY was a phenomenal film. I went into it expecting “man vs. nature,” but the overriding theme turned out to be “man vs. his own survival instinct.” What happens when a man who wants to die is put into a life-or-death situation?

We’ll get to the philosophical underpinnings, and Liam Neeson’s brilliant performance, in a few paragraphs. First I want to discuss the more technical aspects for a moment, because it really is one of the most incredible examples of immersive filmmaking I’ve ever seen. By the end of the film, my nose was running from the cold even though the temperature level in the theater was perfect, and I felt physically exhausted even though I’d been sitting in a chair for two hours.

I worked in a movie theater for nine years, and I LOVE watching films on the big screen. But I am NOT one of those people who pompously says, “There’s nothing like the theater! TV can’t compare!” That’s rarely true, in my experience. Often I’ll enjoy a film even more watching it in the comfort of my own home. I feel more focused. There’s less fear of missing something, because I control the pacing. I can rewind or pause. My eye can take in a fuller image, without having to run back and forth across the big screen. And heck…even with digital projection, I swear a lot of movies still look better in 1080p on my Blu Ray player.

Having said that, THE GREY is one of the few instances where I fear home viewing won’t measure up. This thing was MADE to be seen in a theater.

The sound design is incredible. The feeling of being surrounded by yipping wolves on all sides, the juicy crunch of a knife slowly cutting through the spine of a wolf carcass, the tranquil babbling of a river, and especially the WIND. The film hardly has any orchestral score--a tough thing to pull off, but something that can really heighten the tension and reality of a film if done right (see Sidney Lumet’s early films, like NETWORK and DOG DAY AFTERNOON). Here, in lieu of music, it’s just constant wind barraging the audience and the characters. This is driven home by the few moments where Neeson dreams of his wife, and experiences pure silence. TOTAL silence--the type of silence most mainstream movies are terrified of. The jarring transition from constant sound to complete silence, then back again, is just one of the many ways the film keeps the audience on its toes.

In terms of visuals, well…there’s snow. White saturating the screen, for two full hours, almost without relief. And on the BIG screen, it’s really overwhelming. You feel like you could go snowblind just watching the damn thing. The plot isn’t complicated, and I guessed the outcome before the movie had started. But the purity of the execution, the way that story is told, made the film truly special for me.

I’m shocked that opinions seem to be so divided on this film. A lot of people apparently thought the character moments, and the film’s underpinning ideas about philosophy and religion, were too heavy-handed. I couldn’t disagree more. The movie is economical in giving us details about the characters, and arguably goes for some easy characterizations (the confrontational ex-con; the Christian dad who wants to see his daughter again). However, they always felt like real people to me.

Part of what made me care about the characters was the aforementioned immersive filmmaking. A terrific example is the journey of Delmot Mulroney’s character across a horizontal rope, strung from the top of a cliff to the top of a pine tree, with a huge drop below. This character is by far the least physically able of the group, and every shot in the sequence was perfectly calculated to make me feel like it was ME sliding across that rope. Every move he made felt like the move I would make, in perfect real-time (right down to the loss of his glasses--so painful I caught myself actually reaching to make sure my own glasses were still on). Brutal. By the end of that, I felt like I’d been through battle with the guy. How could I NOT care about him?

The other thing that makes the characters seem three-dimensional is the performers, and particularly the way they play off one another. There’s an immediacy to the performances that matches the immersive filmmaking. Every death feels like it means something. All the supporting performers react exactly the way they would in real life: not with the overwrought hand-wringing or defensive coolness that actors usually portray in such scenes, but with genuine trauma and horror and pity.

Of course, Liam Neeson steals the show as Ottway. I’d watch him in anything (I’m even considering seeing the terrible-looking BATTLESHIP), but I’m having trouble thinking of another film where he was this damn good. Even in the scenes where he’s almost totally silent (such as a riverside monologue near the end of the film), his silence nearly overpowers the speaking actors. This is no discredit to the other performers (Frank Grillo in particular is really remarkable), but Neeson is such a powerhouse.

He starts the film off as a man suicidal over the loss of his wife (a performance where Neeson obviously delved into some VERY painful parts of his own psyche). Ottway has nothing to look forward to. He despises himself and what he’s become. And yet his survival instinct is stronger than anyone else’s in the group. He’s the one who explains to them that if they think about something they’re looking forward to (seeing a daughter again, getting laid again), it will strengthen their will to live. Help them fight. Yet we never exactly get an answer to what is making HIM fight.

All this relates in some way to his feelings toward God. He doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but he says he desperately wishes he could. There’s a moment early on when he talks to a dying man, comforting him and helping him to let go. This moment is all the more incredible when you realize that, in Ottway’s view, he’s not shepherding the man to the pastures of the next life. He’s pushing him off the cliff of existence, but doing it in the gentlest, noblest, most human way possible. Unlike a lot of religious folk, who focus too much on preparing for what may or may not happen in the next life, Ottway cares deeply about how he treats people in THIS world--even in their last seconds. The act of collecting the dead men’s wallets, to give to the families, is another terrific example of this. Come to think of it, in the opening minutes of the film, he even comforts a wolf in its dying moments! Even though his own life has stopped meaning a damn to him, everyone else around him matters SO much. In some way, maybe what fuels his survival instinct is the knowledge that only he can keep the others alive, due to his expertise. It would be selfish to let himself die.

Or maybe it really is just pure instinct. No matter how much a human man may struggle to tell himself “It’s over…I’m done,” the body is programmed for self-preservation.

As far as the philosophical aspect of the film, I don’t think it’s striving to make any big point. It prods the audience to think a bit, which is admirable, but there’s no argument for or against the existence of a higher power. It only matters in the context of Ottway’s personal psychological journey…and what an interesting journey it is to watch.

If I had one minor complaint about the film, it’s that the CGI wolves are never quite threatening. When the wolves were off-screen, baying and yipping, they were terrifying. But as soon as the wolves would run up alongside our group, or behind it, they looked too slick and well-rendered. The rest of the film is shot in such a basic, natural style (complete with intentionally grainy filmstock) that the CGI wolves, while they look fairly convincing, feel completely out of place. Moreover, the quick-cutting of the wolf attack scenes doesn’t flow well with the rest of the film, which is edited more like something from the ’70s than the post-BOURNE era.

Still, for me, THE GREY has already established itself as a benchmark film this year. I’d recommend that everyone see it while it’s still in the theater. And if you agree with the group who thinks the film was too on-the-nose in its quieter moments, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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