The Call of the Wild

Liam Neeson is probably my favorite actor. He’s one of those actors where if I hear that Liam Neeson is in a movie, I automatically make a mental note to see that movie. One of the things I like most about him is his voice. It’s very distinctive in a way I’m not quite sure how to describe, and it’s instantly recognizable. I remember seeing Taken in the theater, and during his now-famous “I don’t know who you are, but if you let my daughter go…” speech, the way his voice filled the whole theater was just awesome. It sent chills down my spine.

Lately he’s been re-establishing himself as a badass, and in my opinion, he’s been doing quite well. Since 2005 he’s done Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven, Taken, Unknown, The A-Team, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans, The Grey, Battleship, and voiced Aslan in the Narnia movies. So he’s been a busy fellow. Perhaps he’s been trying to work his way through the tragic death of his wife Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009 in a skiing accident. She was 45. My condolences, Liam.

Many of his recent films have gotten somewhat mixed reviews, but it’s safe to say that I have enjoyed them all (except Battleship, which I haven’t seen). Neeson is one of those actors where even if the movie around him isn’t all that great, he makes it watchable. One of Mr. Neeson’s most recent films is The Grey, about a group of oil workers whose plane crashes in the wilderness, and the survivors are stalked by a group of vicious wolves. When I first saw the trailer for the movie, my immediate reaction to the question of “Liam Neeson vs. the wolves” was “my money’s on you, Liam!” and promptly resolved to see it.

What I did not anticipate was just how intense and genuinely harrowing the movie ended up being. I’m not saying I expected a barrel of laughs, given the premise, but what I was certainly not expecting was to be so stressed-out and relentlessly wracked with nerves that my hands were shaking and there were tears in my eyes by the end of the movie. When the movie was released on DVD some weeks ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again. Eventually I decided that I did, so I bought the DVD, and as with “Black Death,” it took me about a week before I managed to muster up the courage to watch it.

Man oh man. I’m still recovering. When it was over, my hands were once again shaking and there were once again tears in my eyes. I don’t think I could manage a third viewing. The film opens with Neeson’s character Ottway as he writes a letter to his wife and considers suicide. Ottway is a sharpshooter who kills wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. It’s unknown initially what happened to his wife, if she left him or if she died. His opening narration sums up where he is at this point in his life: “A job at the end of the world. A salaried killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong, surrounded by my own. Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.” He gets as far as putting his rifle in his mouth, and even pulls the trigger, but for whatever reason the gun doesn’t go off, so he gets on the plane.

Those who have seen the film’s trailer and/or know the basic plot outline of the film know what happens next: the plane crashes, and only Ottway and about six others survive. The plane crash scene is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It’s the worst nightmare of anyone who has ever been on a plane, which would be everyone. The plane starts shaking, and your initial thought is “oh, it’s just turbulence.” But as the shaking gets worse and worse and people start to freak out, you keep trying to reassure yourself that everything is going to be okay, while everyone in the audience watching the movie knows exactly what is going to happen next.

I’ve thought about this scene a lot and I think I’ve figured out what makes it so effective, for me at least. It’s shot from the perspective of the people in the plane. There are no exterior shots of the plane being buffeted by wind, or of the pilots in the cockpit struggling with the controls, or anything like that. We don’t know any more about what’s happening than the people in the plane do. There is literally nothing to ease the terror of what’s going on. It’s a scene that is both extremely difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from.

The rest of the film is fairly straightforward, plotwise (SPOILERS AHEAD). The survivors try to find shelter and are stalked by the aforementioned vicious pack of wolves. There is dissent among the group as more of them are picked off, and there are a number of scenes that are so teeth-gratingly suspenseful that it is seriously hard to breathe. It reminded me of “The Hurt Locker” in that respect, since most of the film is nonstop nail-biting tension with only the occasional reprieve.

There was some controversy regarding the portrayal of the wolves in the film. Animal-rights activists were upset that they were portrayed as vicious man-eating killers. So yeah, PETA wasn’t very happy with this film. I know next to nothing about wolves, so I can’t comment on how realistic their portrayal is (or isn’t) in the movie.

But frankly, I don’t care. I don’t care if the movie’s portrayal of wolves was realistic or not, and here’s why. It’s effective filmmaking. The wolf attacks are as harrowing as anything else in the movie. The movie isn’t really about the wolves anyway. It’s a survival story. The wolves aren’t villains any more than the devastating cold. They’re just there. I don’t think the film portrays them as evil, per se. They’re defending their territory, as most animals would (one of the few things I do know about wolves is that they’re highly territorial). They see the survivors as a threat, they don’t just attack them for fun. They aren’t mindless, faceless, invincible slasher-film villains. Wouldn’t human beings defend their territory from invaders? Of course they would.

And here’s something else surprising about the film: it’s actually very philosophical. The survivors discuss their views on the afterlife, and speculate where their dead friends may have gone. One says that they’re not in heaven because there is no God, another disagrees. Ottway says that he too is an atheist, and that he wishes he could believe in that kind of thing, but he just can’t. I read some reviews of the film by people who thought this kind of thing was unnecessary. Frankly, I find it fascinating. What else would you talk about in a desperate situation like that? Wouldn’t you wonder why it had happened? Wouldn’t you wonder why you had survived when so many others hadn’t? What would there be to hang onto? These are questions I don’t want to think about, but I think it’s good to acknowledge they’re there.

One significant gripe I do have with the film is the ending (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT). After all of the other survivors have died in various heart-wrenching ways, Ottway is the only one left. Alone and suffering from hypothermia, he unwittingly stumbles into the wolves’ den, where he comes face to face with the giant, ferocious alpha wolf. He tapes a knife to one hand, and in the other he tapes a couple of small liquor bottles in between his knuckles which he then breaks on a rock, essentially giving himself improvised Wolverine claws. This was it. This was the moment showcased in the trailers, where our beleaguered hero would finally do battle with the ferocious beast who had been so relentlessly stalking him and killing his friends! This was going to be awesome! Ottway stands up, charges toward the wolf, and…

…Nothing.

Fade to black. End credits.

Wait, what? Everyone in the theater couldn’t believe it. There was no wolf fight? That was it? That badass moment in the trailers that promised an epic wolf battle that wasn’t even in the movie?!?! WTF?! And now I read online that the filmmakers never intended to end the movie with a wolf fight at all! I still feel cheated by this. Marginally less so the second time around, but it is anticlimactic any way you slice it. It ends an otherwise extremely intense and harrowing film on a flat, dull note. It ends with a whimper instead of a bang. I just don’t understand it. Why would you have this showcase moment in the trailers and then not deliver on it? It’s like having a superhero movie with no climactic battle between the hero and villain at the end of the movie. Seriously, what gives?

Sigh. I really wish the movie hadn’t ended that way. It’s really a great film otherwise. The acting is excellent throughout, especially when you consider that most of the actors other than Neeson aren’t very well-known. The cinematography of the landscapes is really quite beautiful. The director, Joe Carnahan, previously directed Liam Neeson in “The A-Team,” which, personally, I thought was awesome. Carnahan is mostly known for big, loud, over –the-top action movies, but he proves with “The Grey” that he can direct small-scale, more character-driven films as well, while still managing to make it terrifically exciting and genuinely harrowing. “The Grey” is his most mature and well-made film, though A-Team certainly has it beat in terms of entertainment value.

It’s not an easy film to watch. It’s intense, bloody, and unrelenting, not to mention the fact that the F-word count is easily in the triple digits. I’m still bitter about the ending, but it didn’t spoil what was otherwise an extremely well-made, effective, and thought-provoking film. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something extremely intense, just as long as you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

As a side note, I’m planning a follow-up piece to this exploring some other aspects of the film that I felt I didn’t really have time for here, since what I’m thinking of connects to other films besides this one, and I didn’t want this piece to feel overcrowded. It’s about death in movies, and it’s not going to be fun, but hopefully it’ll be worthwhile. So look for that in the next few days if you’re interested.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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