It’s been a while since I’ve felt the need to use the world “manly” to describe a movie. The last such occasion was for The Expendables, which crammed so much testosterone into every frame I walked out of the theater with a fresh coat of chest hair.
But while The Expendables was traditionally “manly” in an obvious, chest thumping, gun blasting way, The Grey is a far more understated way of demonstrating physical, and often more importantly mental, toughness.
A plane crash leaves only seven men alive in the frozen tundra of Alaska, all employees of an oil company attempting to head home. Injured and freezing, they must make their way south, battling the cold and a far more immediate foe: wolves.
I was cold just watching this.
The wolf pack targets the men as intruders on their hunting grounds and only one of them, Ottoway (Liam Neeson) has any guess of how to deal with them. He was a sniper meant to hunt and kill wolves that would attack the men working on the pipeline, but now with no gun and little equipment, he finds it much harder to do his job.
In a way, the film is very formulaic. There’s no end to the amount of horror/survival films where different personalities are picked off over the course of the film, meeting gruesome ends as they do so. The Grey has a whole host of ways to kill its cast, and one by one as they start to fall it seems like you might have seen this all before.
But the film, unlike its similarly themed brethren, goes beyond the stereotype, and manages to be about something greater than trying to stay alive. Rather, it’s about what it is to die. The film mixes in philosophy, psychology and even religion with its violence and mayhem, and there are a number of particularly memorable death scenes that are not merely about how brutal the kill shot is. After the plane first crashes, Ottoway holds a man’s hand as he dies, stares into his eyes and tells him it will come over him like wave and he should let his daughter lead him there. It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye, and there are several similarly impactful emotional moments throughout the course of the film.
Don’t challenge The Neeson.
It’s interesting to see that this film is from Joe Carnahan, who most recently directed the rather bad A-Team movie (also with Neeson), and before that, Smokin’ Aces, which is one of my favorite pulp action films. But The Grey is far more quiet and nuanced than either of those films, and it’s the most I’ve seen a filmmaker actually mature before my eyes in such a short time. It’s fantastically shot in the wilderness, and Carnahan gets amazing performances out of not only Neeson, but the rest of his cast members who are completely unknown to most.
The film also does a good job of making the wolves the constant, looming threat. I’ve seen many films recently where CGI wolves have made the entire rest of the film ridiculous (Frozen, and of course, Twilight), but here they’re mostly left in the shadows. But when they do appear it’s not an immersion breaking experience, and they feel like a genuine, imminent threat. Also a nice touch is the running wolf metaphor that has Neeson’s Ottoway the leader of his human pack, and having to deal with all the issues an Alpha must face, including insubordination and survival.
Most of the people who showed up to this film wanted to see Liam Neeson box a wolf with broken bottles on his knuckles, but the resulting film is a lot deeper than a purely macho winter action adventure. It actually reminded me of Drive in a way, where you imagine you’re walking into a certain type of action film, but actually find something much more introspective and intelligent.
That said, this is still awesome.
It’s stupid to say that The Grey is my favorite film of the year, barely one month in, but in a period known for crap releases, it’s certainly a pleasant surprise, and I think it’s going to stick with me for some time to come.
4.5 out of 5 stars