Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Ben Bray, and Dallas Roberts
The Plot: Based on (co-screenwriter) Ian Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker” The Grey tells the tale of a roughshod collection of oil pipeline workers who survive a devastating plane crash in the remote wilderness of Alaska only to realize that surviving has now become a full time way of life. If the extreme cold doesn’t kill them, the packs of bloodthirsty wolves that plague the formidable terrain will.
The Film: Campfire tales – specifically ones leaning toward movie chatter – are built on (admittedly boozy…) questions like “Did you ever see that movie where…?” I remember hearing about movies like First Blood and Deliverance long before I was allowed to see them. I visualized Stallone sewing up a ragged tear in his arm after doing his suicidal cliff-to-tree dive trying to escape from the lawmen of Hope Washington. Though I’d heard my dad and his buddies talk about Deliverance, they skirted the rape scene for the benefit of the young, but it was still there, cloaked in pig squeals. I’m positive that if the Coen’s No Country for Old Men – or now, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey – had been released back in the seventies, they would have been part of the conversation.
These are cold, callous, sledgehammer-hitting movies – grown men usually grow weak in the knees for this kind of stuff.
From the opening moments of The Grey it’s clear that Joe Carnahan and this cast are gearing the film up to get mean. The men are punchy archons of the working class. They’re roughnecks working for big industry on the frozen northern plains of Alaska – they communicate strictly through obscenities. The salty language doesn’t feel so gratuitous here, in fact it feels natural – as does alcoholism and fist-fighting. The only stand-alone in the company is Liam Neeson’s Ottway – he’s been hired by the company to kill wolves. Ottway’s a loner, a clever hunter, and a pool of meditation and regret.
I think it took some guts – not to mention a healthy dose of genius – to ask Liam Neeson to handle the role he’s given here. I can understand the pain and heartbreak that Neeson had to go through bringing this character to the screen – I can understand it because it’s there, written all over his face in almost every scene of the movie. Liam lost his own wife in a tragic accident a few years ago. If we feel this character’s pain, his anger – if we feel his courage dwindle, or his drive to survive force his decisions and rouse his feet awake for another step forward – it’s because Neeson’s lived through something like this himself. He can’t help but project his raw humanity – he is Ottway. It’s a terrific, defiinitive performance by an actor who’s had his share of terrific performances.
Still… the impact of this movie is felt in its characters, ( all those names listed above in the cast – especially Frank Grillo and Dallas Roberts) and surrounding this one, outstanding performance by Liam Neeson are a great troupe of actors who bring just as much ruggedness, pain, regret, and anger of their own to this table set out in the cold, lonely stretches of the Alaskan wild.
The film juggles the notion that wolves and men have more than a few things in common – namely they work together under the authority of an alpha male and like living so much more then any other option – but what makes this film something more than a Friedrich Nietzsche fever-dream is that ultimately, humanity does dig through to the surface. We grow to know these guys. We warm up to them as they warm up to each other. We even miss them when they’re gone.
If there’s another character in this movie other than a group of plane crash survivors and hungry wolves…?
It’s Death himself.
The Grey has foundations in the mythical. Not man vs. nature, or the nature of man, or even the nature of nature itself – that stuff has become the punch-line for reality TV anyway – The Grey is about mortality. It celebrates existence – even one as cruel as this one – while extinguishing it in the same breath. The Grey can still be taken as straightforward survival/action fare, but Joe Carnahan is scratching at themes in this movie rarely seen in the genre. This is a movie searching the great, gray lid of the sky looking for the face and hand of God. Sure it’s a film where wolves snatch men away into the night to tear their throats out whole – but the film asks why? What for? What purpose can a single life serve?
Ottway continually recites the same poem as the movie runs its daunting course:
Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.
I doubt these words present the answer to all of life’s existential conundrums… but it’s something to chew on and swallow. Particularly as The Grey crawls toward its final acts.
I was braced for a finale that would pack all of the punch promised in The Grey’s opening plane crash sequence (a horrific scene guaranteed to give most of us a wicked case of the uneasies the next time we board a departing flight) and in the end I wasn’t disappointed. I wish all movies ended like this one chose to. The final moments of The Grey feel earned, and righteous, and meaningful in a way that few movies find a way to close out anymore.
The Verdict: I came home from The Grey screening and immediately gave my two-year-old daughter a big hug. This movie reminded me of how precious a life can be – how precious a single photograph in a wallet can be. The Grey is an absolutely fearless film – as is Liam Neeson’s performance in it. Joe Carnahan has set an early, formidable pace for the rest of 2012. The Grey is the measuring stick by which all other films this year should be judged.
This is defiant, demanding, repeat-theater-viewing material. Do not miss this movie.