by Raj Ranade
“You’re going to die,” says Ottway to the man. The blood spilling from the man’s severed artery suggests that this is true. Ottway is sympathetic. So are the rest of the plane crash survivors looking on. But Ottway has no use for comforting lies. He faces death without illusions. He tells the man death will be a warmth that slides over him as they both shiver in the Alaskan snow. He tells the man to think about the people he loves. And when the man is gone he gets back to the business of survival without a wasted word. At its best, The Grey is a lot like Ottway. It is tough and unsentimental and honest about the limits of the human body. It has a simple, spare roughness to it, like an Ernest Hemingway short story. It made me want to drink a shot of whisky and write short, declarative sentences.
At least until I thought better of it. But this new movie from director Joe Carnahan is a wonderful surprise in a month where the quality movie landscape is usually as barren as the film’s frozen tundra. It’s also perhaps the best thing that Liam Neeson has done since his unlikely transformation into action-movie tough-guy. Neeson is the increasingly rare kind of action star that doesn’t rely on martial-arts mastery, a beefcake physique, or pretty-boy looks as the key to his appeal. He’s more a Charles Bronson type, nothing but distilled conviction and gravity. On paper, a line like “In the next five seconds, I’m going to start beating the sh*t out of you, and you’re going to swallow a lot of blood!” seems like a joke. When Neeson says it on screen – well, you’ll laugh, but you’ll sure as hell believe him.
Neeson plays Ottway, a wolf hunter working for an Alaskan oil rig whose inner demons have him contemplating suicide. After that plane crash strands Ottway and a select group of survivors in the Alaskan wilderness, there are more palpable demons to worry about – specifically, packs of marauding, man-eating wolves. Carnahan smartly makes the wolves into a presence that is felt more often than it’s seen – he and cinematographer Masanobu Takanayagi like to capture the wolves obscured by darkness, with only their eyes glinting menacingly in the night. People have complained about the plausibility of these wolves (they apparently do not attack humans very often), but that’s kind of besides the point – they seem to be as much ghostly metaphor as real, present danger.
The plot mechanics of The Grey resemble wilderness survival stories like Cast Away or 127 Hours, with characters improvising and battling their way to another day of survival – key MacGyverisms here include wooden branches tipped with shotgun shells and a leaping man serving as a grappling hook of sorts. The tone, however, is somewhere else entirely. Those other movies are Testaments to the Power of the Human SpiritTM, optimistically viewing human willpower at its most lofty heights.
The Grey is interested in that kind of resilience too, but it’s also equally interested in how willpower can break down, and what motivators do and don’t work to get people through each day (religion is certainly not one of them in this film – the movie’s credo is best seen in the oddly inspiring moment where Ottway cries out to God for help, but then decides “F*ck it – I’ll do it myself”). Amidst all the adrenaline-juicing that the film does, it’s nothing less than a bracingly honest examination of both man’s place in the universe and the ways men face the end of that temporary position. There are flaws here (almost every extended conversation in the film is essentially redundant) and I don’t want to oversell it. But it is a good film. It is brave and honest and true. I liked it very much.
Like The Grey, Shame is an endurance test, but it’s a less rewarding one. This story about a suffering sex addict in New York City is unquestionably well-acted and gorgeously shot, but it also struck me as a needlessly aestheticized bore, an emperor without clothes in more ways than one.
The film centers on a frequently naked man played by Michael Fassbender who is less a character than an abstraction of sex addiction. What we know about him is that he watches a lot of porn, masturbates in his office bathroom, solicits hookers, participates in furtive bar hookups, and has a weird, possibly incestuous relationship with his sister (Carey Mulligan). What we don’t ever know about him is what he does for a living beyond “generic wealthy executive type”, if there is any aspect of him as a person beyond hopeless sex addict, and just why he has a weird, possibly incestuous relationship with his sister. There’s plenty of avant-garde gestures to keep you guessing – Ms. Mulligan drags out each note of “New York, New York” to twice the necessary length in a nightclub performance while her brother sheds a single tear, there’s an extended tracking shot of Fassbender jogging, and characters in each shot are frequently boxed in by the lines of walls and windows to show their isolation.
There are moments here where director Steve McQueen stops being coy about what he’s trying to communicate and the movie springs to life – like the sequence where Fassbender goes on a date and we get actual insights into his worldview and the stunted way in which he connects to people. But most of this film is just a collection of behavior and enigmatic moments onto which you can project any meaning that you wish, all set to a truly obnoxious score that carpet-bombs the film with mournful sentiment. I suppose there’s value in illustrating the condition of sex addiction on film, since it’s not something that gets talked about very often. But there’s no need for it to lean as hard as it does on the crutch of ambiguity – addiction may be a dehumanizing condition, but that doesn’t absolve McQueen from the need of finding real humanity in his characters. Don’t worry, though, if you really wanted to see Fassbender in an insightful movie about sexuality – David Cronenberg’s excellent new film about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, A Dangerous Method, will be in town within the next few weeks.