“The Grey” with Liam Neeson opens this weekend. It’s a good movie. I’m just not sure it’s this movie:
When that trailer hit the Internet a few months ago “The Grey” quickly garnered a jokey reputation online as “The Movie Where Liam Neeson Punches Wolves.” I don’t really want to spoil the film for you, but I almost have if you’re going to enjoy this thing. If you’re planning to go to “The Grey” because you want to watch Liam Neeson beat the shit out of a pack of of wolves, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Last year, a woman sued the makers of the film “Drive” because she found its trailer “misleading.” If that woman sees “The Grey” based on its trailer she might try to sue the entire film industry.
The trailer’s not really misleading per se; (just about) everything you see in it, along with Neeson’s stoic voiceover, does appear in the final film. It’s not so much the details that the trailer gets wrong, it’s the tone. The aggro music, the shots of Neeson running and screaming with broken liquor bottles taped to his knuckles like a drunk trying to imitate Wolverine, it all suggests an intense and slightly cartoonish action spectacular. Which is pretty much what you expect from Neeson and director Joe Carnahan. The last project these two made together was the big-screen adaptation of “The A-Team.” After you’ve had a tank fight a plane in mid-air, what’s a little wolf punching between friends?
In reality, though, “The Grey” is one of the darkest movies to come out of Hollywood in a very long time. A plane carrying Neeson and the employees of an Alaskan oil refinery goes down in the middle of nowhere, and the few survivors need to band together to find their way back to civilization and, yes, fight off some very angry wolves. But the film is less about action than philosophy — about what it means to be alive and why we struggle so mightily against death. It’s structured like a survival horror film — a large cast is whittled down one by one — but Carnahan doesn’t fetishize death the way a survival horror movie would. Instead, he brings us into the lives of the characters, who are fully formed and painfully real. And when they die, brutally and mercilessly, it hurts.
This is a sad, powerful film. It sticks to your ribs like a good meal. You’ll be carrying it around with you for days. But it ain’t what the studio’s selling, namely The Movie Where Liam Neeson Punches Wolves. Is that a problem?
I say it is and it isn’t. On the one hand, if you saw “The Grey” because of that trailer and felt ripped off afterwards, I’d be hard-pressed to argue with you. On some level, that trailer is a bait-and-switch. It’s not particularly cool to promise folks one movie and give them another, even if the movie you actually give them is deeply moving and totally satisfying, albeit in a completely different way.
On the other hand, if there’s anything worse than a trailer like the one for “The Grey” it’s a trailer that’s the exact opposite of the one for “The Grey;” in other words, a trailer that spoils everything. This is a subject we’ve discussed a couple of times on IFC.com, most prominently in this list of trailers that totally give away the ending of the movie. Though spoiling your own movie seems like a terrible idea, the strategy has occasionally worked, most famously with Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away.” The trailer revealed the fact that — SPOILER ALERT, WHICH IS MORE THAN THE TRAILER GAVE YOU — Hanks manages to escape the island on which he gets stranded (just like “The Grey,” the film takes place in the wake of a harrowing plane crash). The trailer couldn’t have been more clear that Hanks survived his ordeal and returned to to civilization. The film still made over $400 million worldwide.
But why? Why pay for a movie whose outcome you already know? It was a question that vexed me when I wrote that list. Here’s the answer I finally came up with: many audiences aren’t going to movies for entertainment, they’re going for reassurance. They don’t even want the happy ending — they need the happy ending. They need to be coddled and comforted and told that even if you get stuck on an island with a volleyball as your only friend you needn’t worry because somehow you’ll make it home okay. And more than needing it — they need to know that’s waiting for them in the theater before they pay for the ticket. If there’s a chance Tom Hanks dies, they don’t want to go. Life’s tough enough already. They don’t need that heartache.
So maybe that’s what “The Grey”‘s trailer is — not really misleading as much as it is reassuring. If we’re going to watch people get threatened by wolves, we need to be sure Liam Neeson will be there, bottle claws and all, to protect them. The problem here is that “The Grey” itself doesn’t really believe in reassurances. In Carnahan’s view, you can be a good person, you can have a beautiful family, you can cry to God all you want, but when those wolves come, no amount of single serving liquor will protect you. It’s a profound statement. But profound statements don’t put asses in the seats like guarantees do.
I can’t guarantee you’ll like “The Grey,” but I think you will. I can guarantee you ain’t gonna see much wolf punching. Proceed accordingly.