Upon seeing the trailers for The Grey, coupled with the dreary two-some of writer-director Joe Carnahan and, as much as it pains me to say it, dad-action hero Liam Neeson, the absolute last words I expected to use in reviewing it were “tone poem”. But experience has a way of changing someone, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being proven wrong by a film I expected to hate. So, I’ll go ahead and start with the show-stopper: The Grey is one of the modern era’s great cinematic tone poems to human despair and existential dread.
I still can’t believe it, which is why this review is more pragmatic than anything else; I need to get my thoughts in order, lest they escape me, for they currently exist in a giant slurry of deeply felt images and an ever-present aura etched into my brain, all of which prove indefinable when put into words. In a strange way, the closest approximation I have for the film would be 2011’s Tree of Life, a work that shares The Grey’s flawed over-indulgence, but a work so potent and sensory that the intellectual flaws seem almost missing the forest for the trees. What was advertised as a man vs. nature action-fest that would pit Liam Neeson against angry wolves is actually a thoughtful, impressionist, hypnotic analysis of man against something much more concrete than death by wolves: the sheer fact of death, not coming through any specific medium to ease us by allowing us to understand it, but simply present and unavoidable and destructively chaotic. While most man vs. nature films give us humans fighting to survive, this one is a far drearier, even morose effort; it’s not about trying to survive, but about coming to terms with the reality that the will to survive is a fool’s errand.
Carnahan knows the true savior of any tone poem: an expedient, barely there story where exposition and development give way to mood and atmosphere. He presents his set-up with the terse nerviness of the long-lost late ’70s and early ’80s semi-action films by directors like John Carpenter, Walter Hill, and Sam Fuller: there are some men on a plane heading home from Alaska, the place crashes, and the remaining few are tasked with surviving an unsurvivable odyssey. The five main characters here get to bond with each other over time, but the bonding is less of an empowering effort to survive and more a haunting, tragic tale of feigning survival to hide the slowly encroaching crawl of nihilist hopelessness. There’s character and thematic depth aplenty, but the real core of the film is much more pointedly physical and direct.
Simply put, The Grey’s vision of Alaska is one of the most fully realized places ever committed to film, the kind of sensory location that scratches the celluloid and impresses onto our souls. Director Joe Carnahan captures the scary, primal beauty of Alaska with an almost poetic gliding camera, and he makes us feel every hit and scar these men suffer with brutal efficiency and torrential in-the-trenches sound effects. It’s a bone-vibrating film, with the sound right up in the mix. Visually, the whole thing is absolutely spell-binding, magisterial and mythical to the point of a fable (it feels less like a real place at times than a physical representation of the hell of a broken and shattered mind). It marries abstracted whites that play out more like color left out in the cold with something so concretely blunt it functions on the most base and most satisfyingly broad of levels. The cinematography is, no caveats, awe-inspiring; Carnahan clearly realizes this too, and he smothers the whole film with it until the battle of light and dark, space and negative space, plays out like a dissertation on life and death.
There’s a little bit of “heart over head” going on with The Grey. The moments that work, of which there are many, and the heaving, ominous impressionism that washes the entire experience over in melancholia, are absolutely transformative as a dissection of the modern male and how he confronts society, death, and above all himself. This is all so powerful it’s almost enough to disguise the fact that certain moments play more like the very machismo the film elsewhere wholly pierces right into and rips apart whole. There are moments (the stunning plane crash followed immediately by a wonderfully matter-of-fact monologue about death) that are as powerful as anything from 2012 in film, and it’s astounding how deeply and carefully the film subverts its entire marketing campaign to the core. But slivers of dude-isms and dad-action remain, even if they are the exception rather than the rule. One could almost say these enhance the rest of the experience, for they threaten to give us what we expect, putting the film that much closer to what it critiques, only to pull the rug out from under us with even more fury and nerve afterward. Even if that argument doesn’t entirely hold up though, the flaws are so insignificant next to the sheer fact of this imperfect monstrosity of an experience, that they almost don’t seem worth mentioning. The Grey isn’t the best film of the 2010s by any means, but it is undoubtedly, for me, the most surprising.