Monday, February 04, 2013
At the beginning of ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’, weary saddle-tramp Hogue (Jason Robards) finds himself betrayed and left to die in the blistering desert. He implores God, “Yesterday I told you I was thirsty and I thought you might turn up some water! Now if I’ve sinned, you just send me a drop or two and I won’t do it no more. Whatever in the hell it was I did. I mean that, Lord.”
Towards the end of ‘The Grey’, beleaguered company man Ottway (Liam Neeson), lost in the Alaskan wilderness and hunted by a pack of wolves, sends out this little homily to the Almighty: “Do something, you phony prick. Fraudulent motherfucker. Do something. Come on, prove it! Fuck faith – earn it! Show me something real. I need it now, not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die, I swear. I’m calling on you.”
In ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’, the vengeful but likeable Hogue finds water. In ‘The Grey’, the nothing-to-live-for Ottway is answered only by the tallness of the trees, the vastness of the sky and an overwhelmingly indifferent silence. “Fuck it,” he ruminates, forcing himself onwards, “I’ll do it myself.”
If ‘Hogue’ is the closest Sam Peckinpah ever came to a religious allegory, then Joe Carnahan’s ‘The Grey’ is a wintry blast of existentialism. Still, it shares some aesthetic territory with Peckinpah. There are explicit similarities, particularly when one character expires against the majesty of the age-old mountains in a shot that purposefully quotes the final scene of ‘Ride the High Country’.
And there are implicit parallels, most notably in that both filmmakers demonstrate a keen understanding of how men behave and interact; of the macho codes that simultaneously protect their sense of self-identity and threaten to tear them apart whilst under pressure.
Peckinpah’s film opens with Hogue stripped of his rifle and canteen of water by his so-called partners Bowen (Strother Martin) and Taggart (L.Q. Jones). The rifle’s immaterial except that he might have defended himself with it. The water delineates the difference between two of them living and three of them dying before they make it out of the desert. But Hogue survives and the next act of the film sees him become a property-owner, a businessman and a publican thanks to the discovery of water where there shouldn’t have been any, his success flourishing almost accidentally while he broods on the possibility of getting even with Bowen and Taggart. His sentiments thaw somewhat as he romances saloon girl Hildy (Stella Stevens), but he never fully commits and things sour between them.
Ottway, on the other hand, is introduced to us having lost love. His wife has died, he’s ended up a paid killer of wolves for a petroleum conglomerate, mired in a grim company town populated by braggarts, brawlers and bullshitters. He is, put it mildly, at the end of his tether. Five minutes in, having written (or rather orated, in voiceover) a letter to his beloved, he’s crouching over his rifle, the barrel in his mouth. A wolf howling in the distance makes him hesitate. Plus, it’d be an awfully short film if he went the “goodnight Vienna” route.
Instead he finds himself on a plane with a cluster of noisy stevedores and it’s a genuine surprise when the plane goes down because surely all of that testosterone should have kept it up indefinitely. But plummet from the sky it does and suddenly “cluster of noisy stevedores” thins out to “small band of survivors”. Masculine ciphers – the huntsman, the loquacious smart-ass, the myopic nerve-bag, the ex-con – are gradually revealed as actual people. There’s an astounding scene, very shortly after the crash, where Ottway tends to a badly injured co-worker, and unable to help him medically, basically talks him through the fact that he’s going to die and do so very shortly. It’s a scene that most of mainstream directors working today would have fucked up in any number of different ways – pitched just a tad either way it could have toppled into cloying sentiment or callous indifference – but Neeson’s gravitas and Carnahan’s unobtrusive, observational style of direction combine and hold the moment in perfect equilibrium.
Ottway emerges as de facto leader almost immediately, though he’s challenged more than once. His first assertion of authority is when the bullish Diaz (Frank Grillo) starts rifling through his dead colleagues’ wallets and pocketing the cash. The following exchange occurs:
Ottway: Put that back. We’re not looting dead bodies for swag.
Diaz: You got lucky today, Ottway. You should be lying there with them. Don’t push it.
Ottway: I’m not going to say it again.
Diaz: Motherfucker, take a big step back.
Ottway: I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds. And you’re going to swallow a lot of blood for a fucking billfold.
Or how about Diaz’s assertion later, when the wolves appear and their continued existence starts looking less and less likely, that “I don’t walk through this world with fear in my heart” – Ottway’s response is a curt enquiry as to whether he learned that homily in prison: “Did someone write it on the dayroom wall?” Diaz is mouthy twat for so much of the film that the viewer could easily start rooting for the wolves. Yet he is gifted with – and, in the final analysis, deserves – one of the film’s most poignant scenes.
In addition to the Peckinpahesque examination of masculine codes and the jewel-like moments wherein Diaz and others find their humanity, ‘The Grey’ is also a bloody good thriller. A vertiginous rope crossing over an abyss is executed with Hitchcockian aplomb, the camera hanging back from the cliff edge until the one member of the party with a serious fear of heights takes his turn, at which point a dizzying POV shot demonstrates exactly what he has to be scared about.
Likewise, the wolves’ predatory behaviour is suspensefully developed. Their first appearance is almost ghostly: a pair of eyes emerging from the darkness around the crashed aircraft … joined by another … then another … then suddenly the screen is full of them. Later, bivouacked around campfire, human argument and animosity (Ottway and Diaz are at each others’ throats) is thrown into sudden and brutal relief as howling erupts from all around them.
At its best – in the way a horror film is often at its best when keeping the monster unseen – ‘The Grey’ wrings maximum chills from suggesting the wolves’ presence rather than launching across the screen. (A comment on the animatronics: it seems a lazy choice when even a low-budgeter like ‘Burning Bright’ can be bothered to harness the physical threat of a real tiger … but it’s preferable, at least in the opinion of an old fogey like me, to CGI.)
The horror movie comparison bears out in terms of structure. The second half of the film is marked by dwindling numbers, a stalk ‘n’ slash opus with wild animals and inhospitable terrain instead of a mad axeman and a dark cellar. And as the best horror movies essentially play on the fears we never managed to shake off from childhood, Ottway’s internal journey (its arc in ragged but emotionally persuasive juxtaposition to his journey through the wilderness) finds him back with memories not of his late wife but of his father. A drunk, as Ottway remembers him – moreover, a maudlin one with a taste for poetry. More than once Ottway quotes a poem of his father’s composition. It seems like a palimpsest, the Robert Frost-like repeated last lines suggesting a longer work. Maybe nobody’s life ever stretches to the completion of their endeavours, not Ottway’s, not his father’s, certainly not his wife’s.
Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day
Thus the poem, thus the words Ottway arms himself with when the time comes to stand his ground. Another poem comes to mind, a stanza from Tennyson’s ‘In Memorial A.H.H.’:
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed
On so many levels, ‘The Grey’ is an upending, a subversion of the first two lines of that stanza (weigh up “who trusted God was love indeed” with Ottway’s bereavement and his imploration to the Almighty quoted at the beginning of this review) – and a visceral exercise in proving the last two. It’s a brutally existential thriller that debates Tennyson while getting in touch with its inner Peckinpah. I can’t think of many movies you can say that about.