Like a giant, shovel-nosed Irish caterpillar, Liam Neeson has emerged from his late-career cocoon as a crowd-pleasing, ass-kicking action-movie butterfly. This explains why the marketing team behind Neeson’s latest flick lied to our faces when they promised generic thrills n’ chills in The Grey. Oh sure, it’s exciting and all, but look beyond the computer-generated wolves and you’ll find a dense meditation on free will and faith, on the sometimes violent struggle to find the meaning of it all. In short, Taken 2: Alaskan Boogaloo this is not.
Based on a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who also helped director Joe Carnahan write the screenplay, The Grey’s troubled protagonist is Ottway (Neeson), a wolf assassin. Hired by an oil company in Alaska to keep the furry beasts from turning workers into tasty treats, Ottway is in a figurative and literal kind of limbo. Literally, he’s in a remote location filled with troubled men who don’t fit in the “regular world.” Figuratively, he’s so depressed that he’s almost a walking ghost, trapped between this life and the next.
When the plane carrying Ottway and his fellow oil workers crashes in the middle of the abundant Alaskan nowhere, he becomes the accidental head honcho of the few survivors. Known only by their last names, Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Diaz (Frank Grillo), Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Burke (Nonso Anozie), Flannery (Joe Anderson) and Hernandez (Ben Bray) must deal with both a pack of intestine-munching wolves and meaty theological conundrums.
Carnahan, whose Narc showed a promise his Smokin’ Aces and A-Team would later betray, has seized relevance once more, delivering one of the most profoundly emotionally evocative survival films ever made. This isn’t a movie where we’re simply wondering if “they’ll make it,” but one in which we wonder if they should. Without spoiling anything: We are given a choice near the film’s end to weigh the willing embrace of mortality against raging for survival at all costs.
The Grey is within spitting distance of brilliant, with splendid cinematography and haunting conversations about divinity and nihilism. It’s no accident that a film with this title refuses clear distinctions, as there are a myriad of interpretations possible on everything from Ottway’s past to his future. Neeson delivers his usual somewhat glassy and bored performance right up until the final act, when he cuts loose with a savagery more visceral and real than any vengeance-fueled rampage he’s spewed in lesser movies.
The Grey is a stunning surprise, smarter than it has any right to be and almost as profound as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Only Malick’s film ultimately feels like a warm embrace, while Carnahan’s is an angry and cold push to “seize the day,” a point reiterated by Neeson’s repetition of a significant poetic verse. And that’s what kind of movie this is, one that was sold as an adventure despite sporting as much poetry as bloodshed. If this is any indication of what 2012 has to offer, it’s going to be one hell of a year.
Grade = A