Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2012 10:04 pm 
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Into the maw of desperation

Joe Carnahan likes to make movies that never let up. He had fun with Smokin' Aces and the A Team remake. Now he's really serious again as he was in his soulful, grim debut feature, Narc.* Narc was a bad cop story that went down some cruel roads hunting for a fix or for truth or for retribution. This time Carnahan, working with writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, has picked a situation where the ceaseless intensity makes basic survival sense. Liam Neeson, wasted in the tongue-in-cheek A Team, this time is a tough, lonely specialist with far north oil riggers. This may be Neeson's most physical role yet, and its intensity is enough to make viewers shut up and put down their popcorn. Carnahan's last two movies were wild romps. This time he settles down to the seriousness of Narc, and Neeson gives his role a maturity and authority Bradley Cooper, who originally had the role, could hardly have managed. And a fullness and honesty. Neeson lets his Irish accent flow here, and his emotions. The supporting players likewise give their all. In this story, you can't play it part-way.

Even the opening scene, which takes place in a bright worker's bar, is totally in-your-face, careening back and forth. The images are big, they're loud, and they're in your face. They go from Neeson downing shots to Neeson in bed with a woman who has left him to Neeson shooting a wolf to Neeson writing a letter to the woman. It's intense, bright, jiggly, and hand-held and the shifts give us a jolt that suggests we're looking right into his character's, Ottway's, mind. Deftly, through images and a few words, it's established where Ottway stands and what his specialty is. Then Ottway is in a plane full of oil riggers, the action on its way. The flight is doomed. The plane gets horribly knocked around, so much so it's said the actors got sick playing it. And the booms are deafening.

After the crash, leaving a scattering of corpses and a few cracked hulks of plane, we are on a mountain with snow all around and roaring wind. And this was really shot in such a place (in British Columbia), because you couldn't very well fake it. Ottway immediately becomes the alpha male leading a handful of oil workers after a crash in the Alaskan wilderness who find themselves surrounded by wolves.

If Narc didn't quite reinvent the cop thriller genre, but came close, The Grey doesn't reinvent the action horror genre, but comes close. Carnahan doesn't let you think. He does not step back. The strategy is to look hard at the men -- while they last, because there's a steady attrition. Conveniently, a little too much so some will no doubt think, Ottway happens to be a wolf specialist. It has been his job to keep them away from far north drilling sites. So he lays out the situation, when wolves are observed observing them, and a night watch fails and a man is lost. They've had the misfortune to land inside the wolves' territory, where animals that normally do not attack humans feel encroached upon, and therefore want to attack, to defend their safe zone. But, it's about the men. The defining character is Diaz (a memorable Frank Grillo), an ex-con whose desperation leads him to insist he's not afraid. The Grey is about the transformation of Diaz. And about Ottway's simple "Once more into the fray" outllook.

The Grey is a boldly nihilistic movie that skillfully balances the real and the symbolic, external struggle and internal. Unlike the silly 3D sci-fi movie The Darkest Hour, which kept vaporizing its young characters as aliens attacked, there's no romantic couple to focus on as things draw to a close. Nor, for all their toughness, are these men ingenious survivors through strategic sacrifice like the protagonist of 127 Hours. The enemy is implacable, ceaseless, mythical. The 25-below setting with the howling winds is utterly real, but the dark hulking beasts with glowing eyes sometimes are like the haunting creature in Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee.

This is also a view of nature that Werner Herzog might find sympathetic. As Carnahan has said in an LA Times interview, this is a story in which the wolves win, but are simply part of nature that is beautiful but also "very hostile and unforgiving."

The Grey has other good performances, by Joe Anderson as Flannery, a young wild upstart; Dermot Mulromey as Talgot and Dallas Roberts as Hendrick, two of the last survivors. The English Shakespearean actor Nonso Anozie is fine, if almost wasted (the altitude and the cold quickly get him) as Burke. James Badge Dale is Lewenden, Ben Bray is Hernandez. They're unlikely cohorts, but circumstances make them into a team, and this is serious ensemble acting throughout. Diaz chafes at Ottway's authority, but Ottway has both more knowledge and more courage than anybody else. And we find out what that means, just as each of the men who survive the crash finds out what he is made of.

The Grey isn't subtle stuff. Carnahan is not content to use his authentic setting and good cast but avails himself constantly of crude genre methods. Though cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi provides some beautiful grainy images, the jumpy handheld camera can be grating at times, right from the first. The loud horror movie bangs are extremely manipulative, even if they work. It feels like some physical details of the survival situation are left out of the action in its relentless focus on Neeson and the snow and the wolves. Conversely, there is an awful lot of talk, at moments when you can't help feeling there would not be time for it. But the incredibly harsh and yet glorious setting is an element that is not wasted. Even if you don't quite approve of the methods used, it all works.

Carnahan does something here he didn't often do in his other movies. Toward the end, he pauses and lets things become still, and the effect after all the intensity is electric: it's one of the most thought-provoking moments, the one that made me ponder what I would do. And when you pu yourself in their place, The Grey has done its job. I’ve been a fan of Carnahan since Narc, but I haven’t been happy with what he’s done since, till now. This is something new and there are some crude horror effects I could have done without, but this has some of the original purity, honesty and machismo that made Narc special.

The Grey went into release in the US and UK January 27, 2012.

*My 2003 review on IMDb of Narc:

24 January 2003
Warning: Spoilers

Something has been brought to an end.

If Joe Carnahan, the director of `Narc,' wanted to fully redefine the cop genre he'd probably need somebody less familiar in the crook/cop role than Ray Liotta (Oak), but he wouldn't find a better actor than Liotta to play such a role, or anyone with more charismatic outsider-ness than Jason Patric (Tellis). Anyway, `Narc' gets the grit award for this new year, and joins a roster with the odd likes of `Reservoir Dogs,' `Training Day,' and `The Yards' among well crafted portraits of an America where all is dark, violent, and unresolved. This can go in different directions - the fun is all in the dialogue in `Dogs,' or in the moral confusion in `Day,' or in the beautiful Godfatherish melancholy in `Yards,' but in `Narc' it's more a headlong sense of self destructive righteous fury that sets the style. And neediness. This is a movie about craving, deep junky lust for a fix and deep cop hunger for redemption and revenge.

There are also elements from other star performances in the roster, too. There is a good measure of moral confusion, there's some very intense, attention-getting dialogue, there's melancholy (if we only had a minute's chance to feel it), and there's even a final sequence where the truth is revealed and yet left confused , à la `Rashomon,' on a set that clearly evokes `Reservoir Dogs.' This is the movie's most memorable passage. We're trapped in this big scary desolate space with two tied up drug dealers who're being menaced and interrogated. It's a cowboy showdown in reverse. Nobody goes outside and walks. We're stuck in a cesspool. The two actors who play those two drug dealers do a terrific job at their roles too - somewhat thanklessly, since there is a long moment where the two cops are having their showdown and the dealers are cut out, left as disembodied voices. (This is an uncomfortable moment, as is Patric's character's awkward, clumsily handled visit to the dead cop's widow.) This showdown sequence is the best part of the movie not only because it's where everything has led but because it has a sense of steadiness: for once in `Narc' we stay in one place.

Unlike Tarantino, who may be an influence, Carnahan isn't an ironist and he isn't in it for the fun. No, everything is sincere in `Narc,' except that people lie a lot, as crooks and shady cops will do. If `Narc' has an overriding flaw, other than its almost too deep rootedness in genre, it's too much momentum. Not that Carnahan isn't profoundly good at the rush and pull. The opening protagonist's POV handheld camera chase is thrillingly kinetic. No matter how often this kind of thing has been done, from `COPS' on out, this is riveting. But such an opener sets a dangerous precedent: how can the movie maintain that careening forward whoosh! without wearing us out long before the end? It can't, and it is wearying. Even Patric's character snuggling with his wife and baby doesn't break the headlong onward rush. The movie needed to pull back sometimes and brood over it all for a minute, feel the dark sorrow of lifelong emersion in moral taintedness that James Gray evokes so beautifully in `The Yards,' and it doesn't, and can't. Perhaps it needs commercial breaks, or the impulsive intermissions the video watcher is capable of. Perhaps it will indeed be lost (I saw it in a near-empty theater) till video- and DVD-time.

Too bad, because `Narc' wants to become an irresistibly vivid barrage on the senses and thought processes and it succeeds. The two interviews with addict witnesses set a standard of intensity and human color that's hard to beat. When you have a level of craziness on both sides like this, you don't need special effects. `Narc' is honestly one powerful viewing experience, and there are no wrong notes. It is true that some of the plot devices are both confusing and questionable - `Narc' is too caught up in the genre to avoid that. But one doesn't ever feel manipulated. Within the limitations of the script, the acting and direction and production remain first class. If you had to see one movie about two sidelined cops on one last mission to redeem or cover up for or revenge a partner -whatever it is they're doing - digging deep into dirt hoping hopelessly to come out clean - this would be the movie to see, and you need no other. Something has been brought to an end.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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