The Grey

The Grey

According to Q, if you break down a narrative you will find at its heart seven essential conflicts: man against man; man against nature; man against himself; man against God; man against Society; man and woman; and man caught in the middle. Any one of these is more than enough grist for a storyteller’s mill, and these conflicts have been the root for our most archetypal narratives.

Or you could go the other way and try jam as much of all of that as you can into one plot, the way Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) has done in his modern Jack London-like adventure, The Grey.

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a master at going his own way and has done so for probably his entire life, as far as we can tell from the small snippets we get at it. A soldier — or possibly even a mercenary or terrorist (we’ll never know for sure) — in his early life, in the loneliness of middle age he now finds himself a professional killer of a different stripe, tasked with keeping wolves and other predators from attacking oil field workers in the frozen wasteland of northernmost Alaska. A place, in Ottway’s estimation, fit only for men who have discovered they can’t live in the civilized world. That’s an assumption which will be tested for him and a small group of oil workers who survive a plane crash and must make their way through the elements, away from a pack of territorial wolves and back to safety.

On the surface, The Grey isn’t that much. After a brief introduction to Ottway, he and the roughnecks board a plane to head to civilization for the winter, and instead land on the side of a mountain…somewhere. The rest of the film is a Ten Little Indians-style reduction of cast members as Ottway attempts to lead the survivors out of the hunting radius of the wolves he has been routinely shooting.

Not that a complex plot is needed to produce good work. Execution can carry more weight than conception, and Carnahan is as slick a craftsman as is working in Hollywood right now. Though there are no surprises in The Grey — it unfolds exactly as you think it will — Carnahan and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi have sculpted a beautiful film from the snow and ice of British Columbia. And the screenplay from Carnahan and Ian MackEnzie Jeffers (who wrote the short story it is based on) is thematically rich.

As Ottway and his fellows are picked off one by one, they, and especially Ottway himself, are forced to face not only their own inner demons but also what they think about the world they live in and their place in it.

And at the heart of it all is Neeson, embodying in one way or another each of the major conflicts. Consumed with grief over his lost wife and pushed ever forward by the damage of a childhood under an abusive parent he may be struggling not to emulate, Neeson only lets what’s inside Ottway out in dribs and drabs in one of the best performances of his career. Suicidally depressed, Ottway is never the less consumed with his own survival and very aware of the disparity between the two motives.

It’s a difficult role to pull off, particularly inside a stunt-heavy action film set almost entirely outdoors in the snow, but Neeson makes it look easy. If They Grey had come out in December, he would be an easy Oscar front-runner for his work here, and hopefully it will be well-remembered this time next year.

Action junkies should get what they’re looking for, as well — though be warned, The Grey is at its heart a meditative film about a man examining his place in the world. He just happens to be doing it while jumping off cliffs and fighting wolves. But there is little of glory or satisfaction in it; more than likely, you’ll walk away feeling cold.

But don’t let that scare you off; Carnahan has made a potentially dully unsurprising action thriller into an interesting character study and a showcase for Neeson without giving up too much on the action front. Those two things don’t go together very well, very often. It’s worth checking out when they do.

Cast: Liam Neeson as Ottway; Frank Grillo as John Diaz; Dermot Mulroney as Talget; Dallas Roberts as Hendrick; Joe Anderson as Flannery; Nonso Anozie as Burke; James Badge Dale as Lewenden; Anne Openshaw as Ottway’s Wife; Jacob Blair as Cimoski; Ben Bray as Hernandez.

[The Grey opens Friday, January 27th.]
(Liddell Entertainment -- http://www.ldentertainment.com/; Scott Free Productions; 1984 Private Defense Contractors; Open Road Films -- http://www.openroadfilms.com/; The Grey -- http://www.thegreythemovie.com/; The Grey (Facebook) -- https://www.facebook.com/TheGreyMovie)
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Review by . Review posted Friday, January 27th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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2 Responses to “The Grey

  1. Jimmy on February 24th, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I’d written this off as another of the schlock projects for which Neeson seems to have cultivated a midlife affinity (Star Wars, Taken or whatever it was called, etc); something I’d watch, _maybe_, when it eventually ended up on cable. Your review makes it sound surprisingly interesting, though. I’ll check it out; thanks!

  2. Sherron Ainsley on March 9th, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    I am a Deist, and you are sterotyping, a huge fallacy.

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