Even before the tragic death of wife Natasha Richardson in March of 2009, which made him both an eligible widower and a figure of enormous sympathy, gravel voiced, Academy Award Winner (Schindler’s List) Liam Neeson was being repositioned as a mature and thinking man’s (and perhaps, more importantly, a mature and thinking woman’s) action hero, appearing in such paranoid thrillers as Taken and Unknown in which he demonstrated the physical and cerebral qualities displayed earlier in the little seen western duel, Seraphim Falls, with Pierce Brosnan.
Hollywood likes it’s older action stars manly in appearance and macho in affect–before Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, there was John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, etc., etc.–if not also wise, belatedly recognizing that there is a huge audience segment that can be coaxed to the theater when offered something more substantial and age-appropriate than the latest matinee idol promoted to adolescents and young adults.
In The Grey, Neeson portrays an member of an oil-drilling team whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilds, where he and his comrades must battle the elements and a pack of hungry wolves to survive. It’s a classic conflict, man vs. nature, in which Neeson is motivated by more than the individual existential imperative to save his bacon: back home, a beloved, beautiful and faithful woman awaits his return.
The movie led the box office this past weekend, posting $30M in receipts, and yet, I have to confess, I’d never heard of it until a couple of weeks ago when I saw a billboard, which told me little beyond Neeson’s involvement and the genre: action, thriller, though how exactly I knew from the few visual cues provided is a story for another post. (Let’s just say, that I’m familiar with the iconography of movie poster, or “key” art.) I was surprised that it’s B.O. was so strong, when I hadn’t seen the trailer, the TV spots or even a review or print advertisements in my daily NYTimes.
All of which, by way of lengthy digression, is to say that I was inspired to check out the Teaser, and see how this film first registered its existence in the public consciousness and heralded its arrival in theaters. The teaser appeared on You-Tube 4 months ago, presumably in sync with its theatrical presentation. That’s significantly later than the teaser window of 1 year to 6 months out, but not unprecedented.
Having now watched the 1:24 minute trailer repeatedly, I’ve confirmed my suspicions about Neeson’s ongoing re-positioning and his increased value to the studios as they pivot to exploit the B.O. potential of a segment of the movie-consuming public that doesn’t exist as far as some/much market research is concerned. (I use a research report in my seminar, generated by NRG for the 2008 Mike Myer’s fiasco, the Love Guru, which doesn’t include interviews with or data about anyone over 39. I say to NRG, now part of Nielsen, I object! I’m here, older than 39, I love to go to the movies, and I am not alone!)
The teaser, which is not at all abstract or conceptual, benefits from access to what I presume to be the finished and rendered film. It offers plenty of story information, scenes of action and threat, and a clear presentation of the stakes, the motivation, the climax and the probably resolution. Considered generically, this is not a traditional teaser, a marketing film which is often little more than the idea, the title and the cast run, supported by special shoot materials of an impressionistic and emotional character.
The Grey Teaser opens with the logos of its producers: Open Road and LD. A wide shot of a snow covered mountain, surrounded by low hanging fog, establishes the setting. Bass notes strike an ominous tone, while a few tinkling piano notes, suggest hope, civilization, romance? (Just speculating here.) We see Neeson writing a letter in a grey, sparsely furnished, utilitarian bedroom. Frost on the window and snow outside connect to the opening image, of a cold climate. (From reading the synopsis, I guess this is his quarters in the remote drilling site where he works, far from his lady love.)
An exterior shot of a border crossing/gate at night follows, with the glare from security lights obscuring any detail, apart from snow and cold. This shot seems wasted. Next, Neeson reads the love letter he is presumably writing, his voice over conveying his all-consuming passion for the recipient. Intercut to a man (probably Neeson) walking through a snowy wood, no gloves on his hands. Back to a closeup of hands holding a love letter, followed by sunlight-suffused images of the object of Neeson’s address. (Again, my understanding of this juxtaposition of images is a result of my susceptibility to the Kuleshov Effect.)
Next, Neeson sits riverside in a snowy, wilderness landscape; he is underdressed for the weather. Cut to an exterior shot of chapped hands holding a cracked, framed photo of the beautiful woman, followed by a close up of Neeson’s wind-burnt face, and frost-bitten fingers as he holds the keepsake.
A flashback to a planes’ interior flickers across the screen, followed immediately by scenes of distress and panic as the plane and passengers experience an emergency descent. The images and the soundscape are jarring. The screen goes black for a couple of seconds and all noise is stilled. Out of silence, a flashback image of Neeson and his beloved beneath white sheets in a sun-lit room appears. He wakes, startled and shivering, from this happy recollection into the white desolation of a snow field, his actual “coverlet” a blanket of snow. Sound resumes.
Stumbling and climbing toward the plane’s wreckage, he finds fellow passengers. The pacing of the trailer dramatically increases as we see the survivors trekking through the wilderness, menaced by wolves. Blood curdling growls and up close shots of wicked teeth and snapping jaws, seen in daylight, alternate with shots of the pack at night, their presence indicated by glowing eyes staring at the desperate survivors. Neeson’s V.O. returns as he utters, “all my love for you, take it now, leave me only with what I need to fight.” (This is my best estimate of what he says: his voice is hard to make out in its lower register.)
As his “prayer” ends, quick cut scenes of a man being chased, sliding, falling, plunging into freezing water, drawing a knife, running, and jumping from a cliff, a makeshift rope tied around his waist. (It may not be Neeson who we see, but it’s impossible to tell given the speed of the cutting and the bulky, drab clothing.) This scene is accompanied by a crescendoing electronic track, climaxing with the plunge over the cliff. The screen goes black.
When the light returns, we see Neeson, alone, facing a black wolf, who watches from a distance. Neeson has fashioned claws from bottle glass, which he’s taped to his knuckles. As the wolf growls and lunges, so too does Neeson. Cut to the title card, THE GREY, suitably, grey letters on a grey background, followed by 2012, followed by a final card with the Facebook address of the film’s website.
There don’t appear to be any females among the oil-drilling party that survives the crash. So, in this film, the relevant point of identification for women audience members is Neeson’s beloved, who, at least in the teaser, is portrayed as beautiful, sensuous and saintly. (Madonna and whore?—who knew!) Whatever the size and significance of her role in the film, the trailer makers present (whether accurately or not, I can’t say) Neeson’s female love object as a central character and the prime motivation for his resolve. She figures prominently in the trailer in the protagonist’s dream and day-dream life.
Neeson–in or out of character– is the marrying kind of guy—manly, rugged, distinguished, but in no ways puerile, pretty or fickle. For Chrissake, he’s the voice of Aslan, a Christ figure, in the Narnia Chronicles; he’s the wizard of the seas, Fujimoto, in the animated film Ponyo; he’s Zeus in the Titan remake. Men want to be him; women (heterosexual women, at any rate) want to be loved by him.
If you were looking for a clever or counter-intuitive take on why this teaser is effective or how this movie made $30 its first weekend without blockbuster promotion and publicity, I’m afraid I’ve disappointed. Whatever the merits of the film, the marketers understand the advantages they’ve got, as well as the weaknesses they’ve got to manage (lack of significant female characters engaged in the action); they’ve exploited the first and finessed the second.
Sure, the visual palette is grey, the stunts are impressive, the situation is inherently suspenseful and the action is brutal and not entirely implausible, while the editing is hair-raising. But primarily, this trailer gives audiences a star (not a character, but a star!) to identify with, root for and adore. And this star is cold, endangered and desperate but also very determined to do whatever it takes to make it home from one of the most inhospitable places on earth and despite the preferences of a pack of the craftiest, most indefatigable and pitiless stalkers you’re liable to see on screen. Thriller’s should thrill. The Grey Looks like it does.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.