02 February, 2012

Review: "The Grey" (***1/2)

Liam Neeson stars in "The Grey"
Anyone reading this from Georgia can back me up when I label this as 'the year without a winter' (so far, at least). Although known for our blisteringly hot and humid summers, we can get pretty frosty in the winter months, too. A wet and mild winter has been the order for the last couple of months, so trekking out to the cinema to see "The Grey" was actually a bit refreshing.

There are a few movies I've seen over the years that made me feel cold just by watching them. Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," starring an at-her-best Melissa Leo, chills me to the bone every time. Peter Weir's "The Way Back," which starts off in a Siberian gulag, sure makes me shiver. In many ways, "The Grey" is like "The Way Back." Both are films about a group of survivors voyaging through the harsh wilderness, battling conditions, seeking both safety and redemption.

It seems like Liam Neeson is always the headlining star of the first blockbuster released each year. Last year, "Unknown" was the first film I saw at the cinema, unfortunately. This year, "The Grey" marks a vast improvement. Well cut trailers and good word-of-mouth led to high expectations but thankfully, the film delivered.

The film's smooth opening scene gives us an idea about how unfulfilled a life living on an oil drill site in northern Alaska must be. Suspense abounds as soon as the plane is boarded, since the audience is well aware of what is about to happen. While I wasn't as riveted by the plane crash sequence as I hoped to be, I'm grateful that the film didn't peak too early. The film isn't about the crash, it's about the survivors.

Despite several intense action sequences, the film isn't very fast-paced; a smart move by director Joe Carnahan. When making a movie about a group of injured men trying to survive sub-zero temperatures and hungry wolves, you want the audience to feel sympathetic to those characters who surely don't feel like time is flying by. Momentum dipped in a few scenes, but strong editing keeps the film steady.

Another smart technique employed by Carnahan was exploitation of the wolves' elusiveness. Of course, wolves are naturally pretty elusive, so it wouldn't make sense for us to see them as much as our heroes. But we really don't see a good shot of them up close until very late in the movie. A howl in the dark or their visible breath on the horizon has to suffice. Carnahan allows the viewer only a glimpse of what they are to fear.

One of my favorite things about the film was the minimalist score by Marc Streitenfeld (a common Ridley Scott collaborator). The score reminded me very much of John Murphy's stunning contributions to Danny Boyle films like "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine." The music is only really prevalent in a handful of scenes but fits perfectly.

Straddling the line of 'great entertainment' versus 'notable cinema,' "The Grey" is a great start to 2012 in film.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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