While I admitted to Django Unchained being the last film I am likely to see in theaters before the new year, that does not mean I am by any means finished trying to catch all the films from last year, as I made the mistake of creating a top ten list far to early and realizing that either half the movies I thought I liked really were not that great, or that the considerable amount of films I failed to see, truly were quite good and knocked many out of the list, most notably Take Shelter which moved all the way to the top of my list of favorite films of 2011. I intend to may a concerted effort to watch all of the major contenders for best film before the Oscar's and then provide a list of what I find to be the best films. I figure this provides me an opportunity to see many of the films as they still circulate in theaters as well as catch the rest when they eventually come to cheap theaters or bluray, namely some of the blockbusters that I just did not care to see with a large group. One such film on the list of greatly desired viewings was The Grey, which seems to have come and went right at the beginning of the year with little note, save for a handful of serious recommendations from friends and a surprisingly in-depth interview of the film one of the various NPR programs. Since this point, The Grey has lingered in my mind as something I have wanted so very much to view, and as others are beginning to form their top lists of the year I was quite surprised about its consistent representation on various blogs, ones with distinctly different film tastes and preferences. As such, I sat some time aside today to visit this film and was expecting something quite exceptional, yet, much to my surprise, The Grey went well-beyond exceptional and provided for a surreal, surprisingly experimental, reconsideration of what one considers in the survival thriller genre. While Joe Carnahan is perhaps better known for his heavy handed action films, The Grey stands out as something fresh in filmmaking taking the very real primal fears of classic survival films and peppering them with fair amounts of magical realism resulting in a work surprisingly similar to that of Valhalla Rising, yet completely detached from any degree of mythology. While a few readings of the film could draw out some on-the-nose metaphors and commentaries, it is hard not to overlook these small issues and spout overwhelming praise towards this unconventional film, it stands to reason that it is getting much love as the year winds down because it damn well may be the most overlooked film of last the year.
The Grey centers on the life of a group of oil riggers living rather mundane and disillusioned lives in Alaska, particularly Ottway (Liam Neeson) who is shown contemplating suicide before being distracted by the sounds of wolves. We are then shown Ottway and others preparing themselves for a flight to some desolate portion of Alaska to do work, all the while Ottway seems distracted by some memories of his wife, so much so that he does everything but yell to convince another passenger, Flannery (Joe Anderson), to leave him in solace. As the plane travels it becomes quite evident that they are stuck in quite heavy turbulence and when the lights go out the passengers flip out as the plane spirals downward. Ottway awakes to realize that few survivors remain from the wreckage, and the few who do are already injured or in some degree of shock. Amongst the sole survivors are the likes of Flannery, the hyper-cyncial Diaz (Frank Grillo), the veritable unifier in the group Talget (Dermot Mulroney) and the unusually quite Hendrick (Dallas Roberts). If it were not enough that they are suffering from the troubles of maintaining warmth and finding sustenance, it becomes quite apparent that they are directly in the center of a den of wolves who are not at all thrilled that their territory has been compromised. Of course these are not simple wolves, but some incredibly dangerous gigantic breed of wolf that could only exist in this uncharted portion of the Alaskan wildlife. Ottway demands that the group moves towards the treeline, as to avoid being surrounded by the angry wolves, this dangerous act inevitably results in the loss of members from the group, whether by wolf attacks or sickness. As they get farther, individuals wits are tested and their personal struggles exposed, even the seemingly incorrigible Diaz has a turn of heart, however, survival is near impossible and only Ottway remains in the end, and it is while he is arranging a makeshift set of grave markers for his lost companions we realize his previous consideration of suicide is in response to his wife dying in a hospital bed. However, in the films closing moments viewers are shown a Ottway ready to fight, even in the face of insurmountable odds.
I noted the rather obvious commentaries within this film, ones that could easily be drawn in a variety of different survival narratives, whether they be the notion of penance, an act each of the characters goes through to some degree or another, or the deconstructing of stereotypes and class/racial barriers something which seems to finds its earliest origins in World War II war films. These are certainly fully present within The Grey, yet I cannot help but rest upon this particular survival films refusal to adhere to the comforts of salvation in the time of fear. The film certainly uses a purgatory like method of narrative, as we are shown a group of varied sinners existing somewhere between the pain of death and the comfort of life, eventually all but one losing the latter. Hell, even the pronunciation of Ottway within the film sounds similar to Yahweh, a commentary that must not be ingnored, however, it is precisely this character who denounces the notion of a diety, in this case God, providing last minute salvation. It is clear from the moment that the crash occurs that Ottway realizes his job is to sacrifice for others as a means of the previously noted penance and he certainly does this, perhaps to a larger degree than is ever necessary. Yet in one of the films closing scenes Ottway finally denounces God as he demands through a barrage of expletives that he prove his existence. This, of course, never occurs and Ottway is left with the terrible realization of his own singularity. It is at this point that he ends up coalescing understandings with the others in his party who have already come to this realization and begin embracing the fleeting memories of their own lives, this occurs most poetically for Talget specifically. The outcome then with this blatant disregard for Christian based salvation then becomes one of an embracing of the now and a celebration of the memories in the physical, one with its photographs and surreal moments of warmth.
Key Scene: I have seen a few people favor the tree jump scene as the best moment, I am in no position to argue.
It is a shame that I missed this bit of brilliance in theaters, however, it is available to stream on Netflix, which is a considerably cheaper option.