MOVIE REVIEW: The Grey

THE GREY-- 4 STARS

I don't know where Irish actor Liam Neeson finds the inner darkness, inner loss, and inner will it takes to play the parts he's been playing lately in movies like The Grey, and also Unknown and Taken before it.  Frankly, I'm scared to find out.  You've got to speculate that tragically losing his wife, fellow actress Natasha Richardson, three years ago in a freak ski accident has something to do with it.  Nevertheless, Liam, in his 50s, convincingly, and even poetically, takes himself to another place when playing these survival and revenge roles at his age.  To me, he's channeling a darker and fiercer resolve than the other silver-haired tough guys like Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, and Steve McQueen that came before him.  He's more rugged than Bronson, channels more rage than Eastwood, and is more stoic than McQueen's coolness.  At this kind of game, he's better than any one of those guys would be if they were in roles like The Grey or Taken.  

It is truly a different experience to watch Liam Neeson in The Grey. This is his darkest and most tragic turn yet and it's a feat to behold.  In his second collaboration with director and co-writer Joe Carnahan (after 2010's shiny The A-Team), Neeson plays John Ottway, a sharpshooter hired by a north Alaska oil company to protect the men working in the field from wolves, bears, and the like.  He's a deeply sad individual compared to rowdy ruffians around him.  He writes lonely letters of regret and remembrance to his wife (Anna Openshaw), keeps to himself, and has thoughts of suicide in this bleak environment.

Ottway has little to live for when a horrific plane crash strands him and a handful of oil crew survivors in the snowy and violent Alaskan wilderness.  Among the survivors are the mouthy ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo of Warrior), the prayerful Hendrick (Dallas Roberts of 3:10 to Yuma), the nervous Flannery (Across the Universe's Joe Anderson), and the well-spoken Talget (My Best Friend's Wedding's Dermot Mulroney).  On their first night huddled among the wreckage, they encounter a pair of grey wolves preying on the dead bodies and fight them off, only to determine that there are far more than they thought.  An expert hunter, Ottway knows that he and the men are intruding on the wolves' territory and they possess as much intent to kill and defend as they do to hunt and feed.  One by one, the men are isolated, targeted, and mauled. 

With their numbers dwindling, Ottway leads the men from the snowy wreckage into the forest where they have a better chance of food, fire, and survival, but the hunt only continues.  More feral than The Edge, another Alaskan survival thriller from 1997 of Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin trying to survive a Kodiak bear hot on their trail, The Grey is terrifically suspenseful thriller of men with little more than their wits going up against insurmountable odds and danger.  Like any good "creature-feature," the wolves become characters of their own and give the film a frightening, fast, and ever-present menacing quality that bolts us to our seats quite well.  I was impressed to hear that puppets and actors were used more times than CGI.  They're so evil, I'm betting wildlife groups from all over will be berating this film for its villainous portrayal of grey wolves, after they just got off the endangered species list.  Like the bits of real panther in Anchorman's Sex Panther musk, "that's when you know it's good."

When they retreat off-screen, the movie slows down (maybe a little too much) and the power of winter takes over.  Filmed on location in the remote reaches of British Columbia doubling for Alaska, Masanobu Takayanagi's excellent cinematography reminds us that the cold is just as deadly as the bite of a wolf.  You won't be taking your coat off watching this movie.  At the same time, Marc Streitenfeld's quietly serene score never pumps cliche horror chords or puts a white-noise pulse to a mindless chase scene.  The pieces have been put together well by Carnahan and the imagery you soak in and the shivers you feel will follow you out of the theater.  Finally, don't make the mistake I did.  Stay after the credits for a quick payoff scene that I missed.

LESSON #1: MAN VERSUS NATURE-- I'm not trying to turn into a humanities professor, but this basic carnal struggle is key in The Grey.  When man has his tools and devices, he is a superior being, but when taken away from his strengths and challenged by nature, he becomes more prey than predator.  The wolves and the deadly weather conditions demonstrate to our characters just how weak and small we really are when forced to back into the wild from which we evolved and into territory we don't belong.  Survival of the fittest takes over.

LESSON #2: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS-- Wolves are pack hunters and demonstrate an intelligence to hunt with deadly group precision.  When alone, they are still formidable, but more vulnerable away from the pack.  People are the same way.  For men to survive the wild, strength in numbers surpasses the power and ability of a lone individual.  When one individual strays, the whole group can be compromised.

LESSON #: THE DEEP INTERNAL MOTIVATIONS OF SURVIVAL-- Survival is an instinct and an emotion that calls up a will and determination that is unique with every individual.  Each person's internal motivation, and the strength of it, is different.  Some are motivated by fear, others by hate, and some are driven by reminders of love.  In each case, that emotional push undoubtedly comes from within and speaks to a person's character.  When pushed to that brink, that will, determination, and character takes over in whatever form is strongest.