Film lovers hunger for movies like The Grey. It sits here at the end of a bleak season indeed, with the trudge through December’s pretentious awards hopefuls giving way to the skeezy dregs of January. A few minor revelations have occurred this time around: hardly high art, but functional enough to get the job done. Now comes The Grey and suddenly we realize what we’ve been missing all these months. This movie is alive. It grabs you full by the throat and refuses to let go, daring you to look away from its lean, feral form. As the flabby self-importance of the latest Oscar nominees oozes all over us, The Grey offers a surprising and most welcome respite.
Star Liam Neeson cited “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as inspiration for the film, which aptly encompasses both its simplicity and its depth. The ads make the scenario crystal clear and director Joe Carnahan never deviates from it. Instead, he follows it to its logical conclusion, infusing existentialism and man vs. nature motifs into an already taut actioner. DP Masanobu Takayanagi uses stark whites and (*ahem*) grays to portray a bleak Alaskan wilderness: untouched by man and refusing to bow to his authority. It’s the worst place in the world to find yourself stranded… which is exactly what happens to an unfortunate group of oil workers when their plane goes down. The survivors comfort the wounded, build a fire, and start hoping for rescue. Then the wolves arrive; the plane apparently crashed near their lair and the beasts are in full bore Get the Hell off My Property mode.
Only the company’s protection expert Ottway (Neeson) understands the true nature of the threat. He worked at the rig keeping predators at bay, and he realizes exactly how screwed he and his fellows are. His insight helps him rally the survivors around him, as they leave the certain deathtrap of the wreck and make their way towards what the fervently hope is civilization. Carnahan keeps the specifics straightforward and almost dialogue-free at times. We know the odds and The Grey doesn’t cheat us by feel-good coddling. People mean what they say here, and their actions may carry the difference between life and death.
That gives the movie a dynamic engine to drive it forward; it also shows the characters being affected by the harsh facts against which they are thrown. “You aren’t scared? I’m scared shitless,” Ottway barks at one would-be macho man: underscoring his expertise by reminding us that it won’t necessarily save anyone. Their increasingly desperate battle to reach safety thus earns our rooting interest, both in the severity of the danger and in the fact that none of it is coated in contrivance. The actors turn in uniformly excellent performances – marked by physicality as much as dialogue – that convey tough working-class men suddenly in way over their heads. Neeson, of course, eats such material for breakfast, and if the film were released a month ago, there would be serious talk of a Best Actor nomination. As it is, we watch his smart survivalist push himself past the limits to stay alive, and the surprising ways in which he holds onto his humanity in the bargain.
Carnahan liberally sprinkles philosophical musings into the more visceral stuff, as his heroes grapple with an indifferent God and their own faith amid the bleakest of all possible surroundings. The Grey betrays no religious bias and doesn’t weigh in one way or the other; it simply allows the characters to express their fears and hopes, then lets us decide what it means. The unusual intelligence of that approach gives The Grey a strong philosophical punch for those interested. For the rest of the audience, the simple story of survival is more than enough to command our attention. Stripped of Hollywood contrivance, Carnahan has constructed the kind of smart, serious exercise that John Huston or Don Siegel might have once created. Like their best works, it actually hearkens to an older literary tradition, inspired by Jack London and Henry David Thoreau as well as the Ancient Mariner. Today’s cinematic environment doesn’t have the first idea what to do with such a picture, as its unfavorable opening date suggests. That’s precisely why everyone should see it: it’s too rare to ignore and too fucking good to abandon for anything else.