The Grey has had some of the most fantastically misleading trailers in recent memory. That needs to get out of the way right off the bat. When you go in to see The Grey, you’re probably expecting something on the level of Taken. You want to see Liam Neeson being a badass, fighting some wolves, and emerge victorious in the end after some particularly awesome fight scenes. If nothing else, you might expect that it’s going to be a really, really fun movie without a lot of real substance, kind of like, well, Taken. No disrespect meant to Taken, mind, but it’s a cool movie, not a terribly great one.
The Grey is going to knock you on your ass, because it’s not only a brutal, badass movie, it’s also a great one, toe-to-toe with Narc as the best of writer/director Joe Carnahan’s career. I’m calling it right now: The Grey is going to make my top ten of 2012 list.
There’s not a whole lot to say about the plot of The Grey. Liam Neeson plays Ottoway, a lonely drifter of a man who works security for an oil drilling company. Ottoway, along with a few of his fellow roughnecks, get into a plane crash and have to struggle to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness. Matters are complicated by a pack of wolves that are hell-bent on killing every last one of them. I should mention that it isn’t just “These wolves want to eat people because this is a talkie, dammit!” There’s actual care, based on actual wolf behaviors, given as to why a group of wild animals would be willing to risk their own lives to kill a group of men. You can pretty much fill in the blanks on some of the ways the film will progress from there, but be surprised if a lot of your predictions, culled from the average plot of these survival movies and other action pictures, wind up lacking in comparison to the realities of the film.
Here’s the biggest surprise of the film: it’s not just Liam Neeson strapping bottles to his fists and boxing wolves for two hours. Again, granted, it’s pretty badass, but if the film were just badass, it would be a lesser accomplishment. Joe Carnahan has crafted an amazing look at the psychological aspects of human survival in the wilderness, against incredible odds. There’s a stronger emphasis here on the ways man’s response to survival suddenly becoming a pressing need, rather than something more or less taken for granted, and there’s some interesting parallels between the way the group of men behave and in the way the wolves hunting them behave. As the film goes on, and the dynamics change as men die, the film has a lot of interesting things to say on the nature of survival and the line between man and beast. I’d love to go into this deeper, but that’d be at risk of spoiling a fantastic film.
Liam Neeson, it’s sad to say, has seemingly settled into a bit of a rut in his career, playing a lot of roles largely personified as, “grizzled older badass.” When it works, you get Taken. When it doesn’t, you get Unknown and The A-Team. In The Grey, however, he pulls out all the stops with the kind of powerhouse performance you could be forgiven for thinking he just wasn’t interesting in doing anymore. We’re talking Michael Collins, Schindler’s List-level great here. He fits in a lot with his more stock-badass role, but there’s a human side to him that really cuts deep when it chooses to. I don’t want to get too much into it, for fear of spoiling some genuinely fantastic character moments, but Ottoway has some serious backstory, and not in the sense of “RRR tough, former SAS, and that’s why I’m so good at killing things.” I especially want to call attention to a sequence almost immediately after the plane crash where he finds one of the men mortally wounded and bleeding out, and he very calmly tells the man he's going to die, bringing him through the experience with a sad, quiet authority that shows throughout the film.
I also want to talk a little bit about Frank Grillo’s performance as John Diaz. He’s essentially a nobody (you may remember him in bit parts in various movies and as a regular cast member in something called The Gates), and, described simply, his character seems like it doesn’t have a lot to offer. When you first meet him, he’s the posturing prick that tries to put the brakes to every attempt at leadership Ottoway would make. However, Grillo manages, through Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers’s crackling script and his own acting chops, to transcend a lot of the usual tropes of such a character and become something that’s absolutely electrifying to watch, as the film goes on. He’s one of the biggest surprises of the movie, and easily the standout performance, Liam Neeson excepted, out of the group of oil workers, though none of them are particularly slouching either.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of the seemingly bland color palette of British Columbia, subbing in for the actual Alaskan setting. The film is absolutely gorgeous, thanks to the work of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. From the grand vistas of the forest and the mountains to a pack of wolves stalking through the darkness, The Grey takes a largely monochromatic wilderness and makes it pop in a way that, frankly, knocked me on my ass.
The Grey is only problematic because now every other film releasing this year has to stand up next to it. It’s rare that you find a movie that manages to simultaneously be an effective action/thriller while also having something real and interesting to say, with characters that are human beings, instead of cut outs. I think Liam Neeson has a real shot at an Oscar for this one, for all that means, and you do yourself a major disservice if you miss this film.
Matthew Razak - Usually January is where all the studios dump their films that they don't know what to do with. I'm not sure why any studio wouldn't know what to do with a movie as good as The Grey. This shouldn't have been a January dump, it should have been an Oscar underdog (well, it is now). Taught, intense and brilliantly directed, The Grey is a survival masterpiece. It's psycological challenging while still be badass. It's characters actually have emotions and lives, but never get cheesy or melodramatic. It's got frickin' Liam Neeson kicking ass. Few films are gutsy enough to focus on character period, but a movie about giant wolves that doesn't truly focus on the wolves attacking, but who the men being hunted are is a truly rare gem. This will easily be one of my favorite films of the year. 92 - Spectacular