Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: Liam Neeson stuns in the terrifying, profound survival film "The Grey"

Film Rating: A

“The Grey” is an aptly titled film, for the main character, Ottway, exists inside of it.  The Grey, to my mind, is the space between life and death, the place where those without an interest in living or in dying exist, and Ottway, played by Liam Neeson, has been there for a long time.  From the moment we first meet him, he is haunted by an unknown trauma and living no longer holds any allure for him.  But he cannot die.  His fear is too great.  He has relocated himself to an obscure oilrig in Alaska, far away from civilization, happiness, and hope, and spends his days protecting the unruly men who work there by shooting the wolves that breach the perimeter.  He will not die, but he can no longer live, so this is the slice of melancholy he has carved for himself.

Thus, when Ottway survives a plane crash in the middle of the harsh Alaskan wilderness, he is naturally fit to be the leader.  Stranded in the most extreme of conditions, low on supplies, and surrounded by monstrous gray wolves, this is not a scenario where living is a likely option.  Until death arrives, Ottway and the six or seven other survivors are all in ‘the Grey.’  This is a new and terrifying situation for all the other men, but not for Ottway.  The Grey is his home, and for him, the challenge of this scenario does not truly lie with the wolves or the elements, but within his own convictions and beliefs.  “Live and die on this day,” he says in the opening monologue.  Those are words he holds in his heart, words he clings to inside the Grey void he has created for himself, but only now, closer than ever before to death, will he actually discover the meaning behind them.

This is my interpretation.  Yours may differ.  “The Grey” is a film that revels in ambiguity, and the only certain conclusion is that it is a tremendous film, the first great motion picture of 2012.  Were it nothing more than an empty survival thriller, it would still be impressive, for co-writer/director Joe Carnahan weaves tension, dread, and bottomless fear into every frame, seemingly with ease.  The film is remarkable, though, for its philosophical aspirations, its thoughtful and uncompromising mediations on masculinity, faith, and above all else, death.  The thoughts and musings it conjures in the viewer’s head are far scarier than any number of wolves, and though “The Grey” is a harrowing experience, it is also a meaningful and unforgettable one.  

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Neeson has never been better than he is here; if there is any justice in the world of cinema, this is the performance he will one day be remembered for.  The role of Ottway gives him ample space to break out the powerful badass persona he’s perfected over the last few years, but more importantly, he projects a raw, painfully empathetic humanity that keeps one glued to the screen.  This man is fascinating, for he exists inside all of us, whenever we are at our darkest and drained of all hope.  “The Grey” explores subject matter we would rather not think about, and the results wouldn’t be so hard-hitting if Neeson weren’t willing to push himself as far as he does here, over an emotional edge and then further still.

The supporting characters are, surprisingly, invaluable.  If there is one core trait that defines the survival-horror genre, it’s that we are rarely made to care about anyone other than the protagonist.  For a while there, I thought “The Grey” shared this fault; by the hour mark, I still had trouble mustering much enthusiasm for any of Ottway’s companions.  But Carnahan and co-writer Ian MacKenzie Jeffers know exactly what they are doing.  The supporting players are rough types early on so that the wolves and the elements may gradually whittle them down, slowly but surely revealing invaluable layers of personality and meaning.  The performances are impressive across the board.  Frank Grillo, in particular, portrays his character’s arc spectacularly, and is absolutely mesmerizing in a climactic scene. 

The film’s production values are uniformly awe-inspiring.  I suspect that Carnahan didn’t truly risk his cast’s safety by throwing them into a den of wolves in the middle of an Alaskan winter, but if any of this were faked, I for one cannot spot the seams.  Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is masterful, capturing the beauty and the danger of the Alaskan tundra in equal measure, but what the camera hides or merely suggests is often more terrifying than anything seen on screen.  Marc Streitenfield’s score is marvelous; there must surely have been temptation to compose a percussion-heavy, heart-pounding action score, but Streitenfield practices restraint, using strings and soft ambience to focus instead on the fear and doubt clouding the characters’ hearts.

“The Grey” is not a pleasant experience.  Had I weaker convictions when it comes to film, there were several spots where the tension and darkly contemplative themes may have driven me out of the theatre.  It is, at times, overwhelming.  But that is the mark of a great movie.  Carnahan forces us to feel, and though those emotions are often unbearable, they mean something.  I do not go to the movies to be passive.  I go to be moved, to be challenged or shaken, to be affected in a palpable way.  This is what “The Grey” achieves in spades; few cinematic experiences are this wildly rewarding. 

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"Jonathan Lack at the Movies"


  1. Loved your review of "The Grey". It helped me understand what I experienced and what I loved about that film.. great contribution!

  2. You write with grace and power, but I did not see the profound meaning in the film that you so eloquently put forth in your interpretation. What I did see was a group of male characters with no dimension, systematically torn apart and devoured by voracious wolves. The "Grey" is purely in your mind, not in this inane attempt at art. Neeson will not be remembered for his performance in this film, but Alan Ladd will in Shane.

  3. First of all, I'm sorry for any mispelling or mistakes I could make in this comment, I'm not a native English speaker. For me The Grey has been a really profound and moving story because this film describes human nature and all those challenges people are supposed to overcome in life. The character of Liam Neeson is what a human being should be, someone with doubts, fears but at the same time so human and emphatetic with his companions that is hard to not love him with all his complexity.