If it's crap ... We'll tell you
No other film has had such an appropriate title in quite a while and not just in terms of the actual story itself but of the story behind the story in this particular case. Sure, the film is heavy in terms of its philosophical ideas and the dire situations that it pits against its main characters but it also delivers on the visceral aspect of a slow-burning roller coaster through the Alaskan wilderness as a pack of wolves track down the remaining survivors of a plane crash one by one. While this film could have been just a thrill ride, the winning teamwork of director Joe Carnahan and actor Liam Neeson make this film a journey into the human psyche and possibly even into the gates of Hell itself that would make any author of the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Conrad drop their jaws at how beautifully crafted this heavily symbolic and classic tale is made.
With this film, one could argue that we are finally seeing the revolution of Liam Neeson as an actor. For most of his career, he has been known to be the guy you go to for an archetypal mentor or father figure for the main character who's completely wholesome and one who embodies all the perfect qualities one would expect a governing force to have. With the rare exceptions of such historical figures as Oskar Schindler or cold-hearted bastards of the likes of Bryan Mills in Taken or his villainous turn as Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins, Liam Neeson has pretty much played it safe by playing the archetypal mentor or father figure and he's made a great name and career for himself because of that even though many saw him as a movie star that was capable of so much more than what he thought he could do. He was even an actor who would laugh and make jokes about actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, who committed themselves to roles on a Stanislavskian level. Now it seems like the table has turned on Neeson and perhaps it's for the best in terms of his acting career. With the unfortunate death of actress Natasha Richardson, his wife for 15 years and the mother of their two sons, he has run away from facing his pain in a creative sense by taking high profile popcorn flicks in the two years following her death (it may also be a financial thing to re-establish his family by being the sole provider for his two sons) but even so, something beautiful has come out of that period of two or three years. With Neeson reuniting with The A-Team director Joe Carnahan, they've found a project in which they can both face challenges and emerge victorious from it. In Neeson's case, he has finally found a role that not only matches his skill as a brilliant actor but one that requires as much physicality as any other role in an action movie. He's the tortured soul whose pain and anguish has banished him to a place of no return and yet he knows in his heart that he must lead the people surrounding him back home even if he doesn't make it back himself. That's an incredibly difficult and complex character to fully realize and the script needed a masterful actor with an utterly painful experience to draw from to make it happen and Liam Neeson was able to do so. Therefore he has churned out a revolutionary performance that completely redefines him as an actor and it proves to everyone that Neeson is not only a great personality on the big screen but he that is also an incredible human being. By lending a unbelievably real touch of humanity, Liam Neeson has ascended himself to a truly god-like position amongst the very best of his peers. If he continues along the path that he's set for himself, he could even re-examine and redefine a handful of roles that he's already made so memorable just within the next year.
Neeson is not the only one who delivers either. While he is the central character who goes through the most dynamic character arc, every other actor brings a gritty realism to their respective characters. While it initially appears as if they are only there to serve as archetypal or stock characters for John Ottway to interact with during this brutally harsh storm of events, the story unravels in such a way to say that these men aren't just simple human beings. Each man has their own reason for working at the same Godforsaken oil rig as Ottway and while they may react to the catastrophe in different ways, each manner of perspective feels very real and honest and that's brilliantly brought to life by the ensemble cast surrounding Neeson. The two in particular that really stand out are Frank Grillo and Dallas Roberts. While Dallas Roberts has lent his talents as a great character actor in the past, this is the first film where he's really been given as much time to show off what he can do and he just absolutely captures who his character is and how much of a secretly deep connection he shares with Ottway. Frank Grillo is also given a great amount of character as he wanders through the frozen wasteland with a bunch of other scruffy assholes that he has to deal with and he just nails every single moment that he's been given to realize and it's the kind of performance that could make him a bigger name relatively soon.
But the biggest surprise that could be seen with this film is how well Joe Carnahan manages to confidently craft a Socratic adventure film that not only gives the audience a tight and excellent thrill ride through the Alaskan wilderness but one that deeply explores the varying philosophical discussions and speculations concerning death and the afterlife. What's most shocking about Carnahan's mad skill as a filmmaker and storyteller is how he can so easily transition from the wild and riotous hilarity of The A-Team to the incredibly thoughtful and philosophically engaging heaviness of a story like this and manage to pull it off as if he were making films like this for his whole career. While the story is thrilling and compelling, there are times where it becomes utterly terrifying and just painful to watch even for the most jaded individual but that's what makes this film work. These men are put into an extreme situation that seems inescapable and all they are trying to do is survive to see even the tiniest vestige of human civilization and that elemental fear and drive to survive is what fuels your emotional investment in these men because the wolves they are going up against are truly inhuman. These wolves truly feel like actual monsters that anyone would hope to avoid on any given day. The blackness of their eyes, the grisliness of their growls, the slobbering saliva from their jowls, and just the pure animosity that is steaming out of their breath are the things that nightmares are made of and they are brought to life flawlessly.
Since this film has been compared to so many great stories concerning similar themes in both film and literature, there's no doubt that Carnahan and company have achieved what they set out to achieve. It sets out to be a survival film about man fighting against the elements on the surface but a journey into the core of humanity and outside of the physical bounds of one world in order to reach the metaphysical possibilities of the next at the same time. It's almost impossible to truly capture a story like that and make it work the way it is supposed to without it feeling forced but Joe Carnahan, Liam Neeson, and the rest of the cast and crew pull it off with effortless confidence and they deliver something truly special here. With an Oscar-calibre performance from Neeson, a story told as well as any classic in film or literature, first-rate direction, seamless practical effects , surreal and horrifying monsters taken from reality, and a psychological and philosophical depth that's rarely found in most mainstream film, this film manages to defy the odds in every single capacity. If the rest of the major films this year can meet or exceed the standard that this film has set, audiences will be in for a unique year at the movies.
Rating: Full Price!!