The Grey a matter of life and death, Fassbender in the flesh in Shame

by Mark Burger

The Grey , an intense and harrowing survival thriller with existential overtones, is filmmaker Joe Carnahan’s best-realized film to date. His 2004 crime drama Narc was an effective, if familiar, ode to ’70s cop cinema; Smokin’ Aces (2006) was fun at times but often excessive and ultimately shallow; and 2010’s The A- Team was, in the nicest possible way, fun trash.

Screenwriters Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers have adapted and expanded Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker,” and their repeated attempts to ascribe deeper meanings to the proceedings are occasionally heavy-handed, but the effort is sincere and effective enough to graft the intended extra layer onto the story — which occasionally recalls 1993’s Alive (which is referenced here), and 1997’s The Edge, a David Mamet-scripted thriller in which plane-crash survivors Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin square off against a hungry grizzly (and each other).

A plane crash figures prominently here too, as employees of a petroleum company en route to Anchorage find themselves stranded in the punishing wilderness after their flight goes down. That any of them survived is a miracle, but it’s a back-handed miracle: Not only must the men contend with the risk of hypothermia and exposure, as well as the distance to any semblance of civilization, but a pack of ravenous wolves has already caught their scent.

Reuniting with Carnahan after The A-Team, Liam Neeson provides the film’s anchor as Ottway, still overcome with grief over his wife’s recent death. In an ironic twist (and not the first), Ottway is probably the character least interested in survival, who most wants to die, yet his expertise (he’s a marksman and knows his wolves) makes him a natural leader. But it’s not necessary a simple matter of survival of the fittest or the smartest.

No matter how herculean their efforts are, the survivors are fighting against very steep odds, and fate has a nasty way of intruding at the worst possible time.

Appropriately rugged and violent, The Grey isn’t as gory as it might have been. The wolf attacks are sudden and startling, but the bloody aftermaths are handled with some discretion. Besides, what you don’t see can be just as unsettling as what you do. (The actors’ reaction shots do a good job of indicating just how hideous what they’re looking at is.)

Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography captures well the desolate beauty of the location, as lovely as it is lethal, and Marc Streitenfeld’s score nicely accentuates the suspense. In addition to Neeson, there’s good work from Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale and especially Frank Grillo, as the resident cynic of the group — whose cynicism is hardly unjustified. There aren’t a lot of laughs in The Grey, but there are welcome moments of brittle dark humor.

Incidentally, don’t be so hasty to depart the theater during the end credits. There’s a sting at the end of this tale.

As befits any self-respecting NC-17 film, Shame , is provocative and explicit. As the principal character, an affluent New York executive and obsessive sex addict named Brandon, Michael Fassbender gives a fully committed — and sometimes fully naked — performance.

Yet for all the bared flesh and raw emotions, Shame lacks a point of view, or even a point. The film clearly suggests that sexual addiction is destructive — so’s any addiction, and that’s no revelation — yet offers nothing in the way of its origins in Brandon’s life. The circumstances that have driven him to this point in his life remain a mystery.

Brandon, of course, is scarcely able to maintain a normal relationship, and even his businesslike facade seems to be crumbling. He’s in bad shape psychologically at the outset, and things don’t much improve from their. A visit from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who’s got severe emotional issues of her own, does not portend a happy reunion between these damaged siblings.

Screenwriters Abi Morgan (who also penned The Iron Lady, likewise well-acted but disappointing) and Steve McQueen (who also directed and is no relation to the actor) have fashioned a dark, dour, depressing tale. For a film that contains so much sexual activity, very little of it ranks as erotic. This may be the intent, but it also renders the addiction a mere a plot device. Were Brandon not a sexual compulsive, he wouldn’t be all that interesting a character.

To be sure, Fassbender and Mulligan give commendable and intense performances, imbuing Brandon and Sissy with some emotional content, yet there’s never even a suggested reason for their problems. Evidently their parents are dead and they grew up in New Jersey (uh-oh!), but that doesn’t explain why they are the way they are — and that distances the characters, and the story, from the viewer. Shame pushes the envelope, but where?

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