REVIEW: The Grey [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 117 minutes | Release Date: January 27th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Open Road Films
Director(s): Joe Carnahan
Writer(s): Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers / Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (short story Ghost Walker)

“Live and die on this day”

Struggling to find meaning in a life of solitude by punishing himself to self-exile in a desolate world caught between the pristine white backdrop of untouched snow and the turbulent mass of flesh populating it as a refuge from decent society, Ottway (Liam Neeson) wonders if the time has come to retire. Writing a note to the woman he loves but can no longer see except in memory, he recalls a poem from his childhood and wonders if his fight has led him to his final day. Life as protector for an oil drilling crew full of ex-cons and the amoral gave him the quiet calm of isolation, but the mechanical monotony of pulling the trigger to watch the wolves on who’s land they’ve invaded die has gone on too long.

It’s through The Grey‘s opening voiceover that we learn our sad, morose hero has reconciled the fact it’s quitting time—to quit the job, the death dealing, the pain of memory, and the arduous passage of regret he’s come to know life to be. Director Joe Carnahan sets the tone for what’s to come as a sweeping score of tragic woe washes over the in-tight close-ups of this grizzled man’s face, his eyes swimming in the rough sea of a reminisced past he no longer has the strength to run from. It’s a fluid twirl through the seedy after-hours bar these Alaskan oil men frequent that expresses how far outside the sphere of human contact Ottway has gone as the volatile fist-fights of drunkards in the background do nothing to give him pause once sitting for a drink of his own. Only the howls of the beasts surrounding them shakes him from self-destruction, his ability to protect against the evil we all eventually succumb to a reason to keep going.

And this is where Carnahan and short story author Ian Mackenzie Jeffers begin to delve into questions about faith and lost moments away from the ones we love. Ottway is on his final leg limping through existence without purpose besides a job he’s obviously tired of performing. We don’t know what he’d do once back at the mainland nor do we know if he’ll ever return once the small plane trafficking them home crashes in the blizzard that soon serves as a personal hell to survive. Each man left miraculously breathing in the aftermath of the ripping metal’s chaotic screeching and human screams of abject terror piercing through the shuddering score before impact must wrestle personal demons and discover what it is they truly cherish. Their trek through freezing temperatures into the heart of a wolf den with pack on the prowl becomes a final sojourn to find meaning inside an otherwise empty life.

Like the protector he has been sniping wolves as they approached the oil wells, Ottway becomes a shepherd towards safety, not of the body, but of the heart. Gruff yet compassionate, this man takes the leadership mantle early and through tough love saves the six others who survived their horrific crash. They push against him and he fights right back—not necessarily for their safe-keeping, but for his own since the animals on their tail will attack at any sign of fear from one or all. And as the wolves begin to pick them off, these malicious men who have spent a lifetime building a façade of impenetrable confidence regress into the lost soul within, their mortality looming closer than ever imagined. With only fire, a handful of shells without a rifle, and the composed mind of Ottway to lead the way, their trek becomes less about survival as an acceptance of the inevitable death to come.

With a cast of familiar faces hidden by scruffy beards and steely resolves it’s easy to look at men like James Badge Dale and Dermot Mulroney and not believe it to be them. The Grey is less about the actors performing as the characters they portray moving closer to a spiritual release their aggressive natures refuse to let surface at the start. The dynamics at play are made very clear after the first death post-crash leaves men like Joe Anderson‘s Flannery in tears and shock while Neeson assertively and calmly takes the victim’s hand and talks him down until the last breath exhales. The quiet turmoil of Nonso Anozie‘s Burke and the grating machismo of Frank Grillo‘s Diaz serve as our spectrum bookends with the likes of Dallas Roberts‘ Hendrick’s easy acceptance of their situation and Ben Bray‘s Hernandez’s willingness to fight filling the center.

Scenes of violence are shot in a kinetic abstract kaleidoscope of growls and screams so close to the camera that our eyes can only feel the visceral destruction without really seeing the details. These men are being pushed and pulled to the brink every second and Carnahan deftly sprinkles in strong moments of Neeson violently dragged between fantasy and reality as his lack of faith in God is replaced by a belief in man’s ability to survive the tests thrown his way. His Ottway becomes a beacon for hope and a vessel for the others to find strength and remember what it is they are battling to survive for. The wolves are grim reapers biding time until each man is ready to say goodbye, either an example of the absence of God bringing death or the looming end for each to move closer to absolution.

The Grey is much more than an action thriller people are jokingly subtitling: Liam Neeson Kills Wolves. It is a parable showing humanity’s mettle against small odds and our desire to believe in something greater when the time comes to let go. Sometimes it’s God, sometimes the beauty of a landscape more gorgeous than anything you’ve seen in your life, or perhaps hanging onto the one bright beacon of light you’ve had in a life too full of darkness. We sleepwalk through life to live up to expectations and until we’re faced by our breaking point we’ll forever languish in that hell. Only in peril do we look inside to find our strength lies in a child, a spouse, or a fleeting love long gone. It’s their power that allows us to hunker down and make a last stand, their spark that lets us to go to war pure. To live and die in one moment is finding meaning and knowing you never gave up.

[1] Liam Neeson stars in the action thriller, THE GREY, opening Jan 27, 2012, nationwide. Photo Credit: Kimberley French.
[2] Liam Neeson stars with Frank Grillo (‘Warrior’ and upcoming ‘Lay The Favorite,’ ‘Gangster Squad’) in the action thriller, THE GREY, opening Jan 27, 2012, nationwide. Photo Credit: Kimberley French.
[3] Liam Neeson stars in the action thriller, THE GREY, opening Jan 27, 2012, nationwide. L to R: Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Liam Neesen, Nonso Anozie. Photo Credit: Kimberley French.

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