The Grey (***½)

7

Incredibly bleak but undeniably powerful, ‘The Grey’ is a tough picture to sit through, but a rewarding one, especially in terms of Liam Neeson’s terrific lead performance. There was talk a few months ago of giving the film a quick qualifying run in December to have Neeson eligible for Oscar consideration (and the plan now is to re-release the movie in October to remind voters of his performance), and while it was too crowded a year for him, this time around…who knows? Neeson does some excellent work here, giving you a character hanging on to life by a thread. Without his acting, this might have been too bleak a film to sit through, though plenty of credit goes to Joe Carnahan for making as consistently dark a movie as this one palatable in a way. The flick is exciting but methodical, the characters are well fleshed out, and the philosophical agenda is somehow a perfect companion to the battle for survival in the snow. This has a lot in common with the work of Ernest Hemingway, and considering that the previews make this out to be the movie where Liam Neeson punches wolves, that’s some high praise. Strong acting all around and a firm directorial hand anchor the film, but it’s Neeson that puts things over the top. He’s combining his recent action hero outings with something deeper, and the result is a real winner.

The film details the struggle for survival by an oil drilling team in Alaska after their plane crashes deep in the wild. They’re the dregs of society, and no one seems more ill at ease with it than Ottway (Neeson), who’s on the verge of ending it all when we first meet him. He’s repeatedly having visions of a lost love and has no hope left. A sharpshooter for the company whose job it is to shoot wolves that threaten the drillers, Ottway leads a life he no longer wants to be a part of. However, when the plane he and a number of other workers is on goes down, he finds that he has no choice but to struggle to live. If he doesn’t help his co-workers, everyone will freeze or starve to death. Oh, and there’s a hungry pack of wolves stalking them and taking the men down one by one. When not fighting the whiny obstruction of Diaz (Frank Grillo), Ottway works with Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Talget (Dermot Mulroney), and others to make their way from the wreckage to safety. Nothing seems to be working in their favor though, and death appears to be the only way out…

I loved Liam Neeson in this role. It’s sort of a hybrid between the action hero he’s been of late in things like ‘Taken’ and the more cerebral roles Neeson used to favor in the past. Here he’s gritty and empathetic, but still a bit at arm’s length. At times he appears to care about these men, but at other times he’s almost helping them just because he knows they won’t be able to help themselves and they might get in his way. Regardless of the circumstance, it’s his acting that takes you through. I have my doubts that the Academy will decide to reward him with an Oscar nomination, but if they somehow do, you won’t hear me complaining. As for the rest of the cast, both Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney do a lot to add to their stock characters, while Dallas Roberts isn’t far behind. These are the main men you get to settle in with, and they do quite good work. Some of their later trials are incredibly intense because you’ve now formed a bond with them. The rest of the cast includes Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Ben Bray, and Anne Openshaw. Everyone is solid, but Neeson leads the way.

Co-writer/director Joe Carnahan is going back to his ‘Narc’ roots with the grittiness and strength of storytelling. His direction is smooth and confident, and even at times has a bit of an artistic bent to it. Carnahan’s script, written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (and based on the latter’s short story) fuses the man vs nature tale with a lot of BIG IDEAS, but they all manage work, which surprised me. The wolves are obviously meant to be symbolic for death (one can even make the case that the wolves don’t even exist, but I’m 99% sure they actually do), and watching these tough guys stare death in the eye is pretty compelling. In the end this is a tale of a man ready to die who gets to stare death in the face and decides that he wants to live. It’s very grim, but Carnahan sticks the landing.

A quick note about the ending and the publicity materials selling the flick as an action epic. You won’t get what you expect, I assure you. That being said, I think the end result is better, but that’s just me. There’s an extra shot after the credits that will probably divide audiences, though not as much as the ending will. I’m eager to see what people think…

‘The Grey’ is one of the bleakest mainstream releases in some time, but that says nothing about its quality, which is far greater than the month of January usually gets. Slowly these early months are no longer quite becoming the dumping ground that they once were. Yes, they still have plenty of garbage, but it’s not becoming the norm anymore, and I’m very pleased about that. This flick is a bit on the divisive side, but Liam Neeson’s terrific lead performance is something we can all agree on, I hope. I highly recommend this movie, especially if you like when a film turns out differently than you expect it to. If all you want is Neeson punching wolves with broken glass bottles taped to his fists, you’re going to leave the theater disappointed (very disappointed actually, let me assure you of that), but if you’re down for a meditative survival tale with strong acting and an edge, you’re going to be as happy as I was. This is one to make sure you see!

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