Monsters Within and Without.
Liam Neeson takes the shortcut through the woods – and meets the Big Bad Wolf.
THE GREY finds Neeson as a sharpshooter/hunter for an arctic oil company, keeping the feral wolves at bay from drilling sites. The opening sequence sets up what a thoughtful movie experience this will be, as Neeson shoots down a wolf in the desolate snow and finds some sliver of kinship with it; then he enters a boisterous bar full of drillers and has a quiet whiskey, while images of a woman (dead wife? divorced?) float through his mind. We realize that in the wilderness he felt a kinship, but here surrounded by his own kind, he is more alone than ever. Brilliant!
He boards a cargo plane with a group of workers, that crashes in the icy wilds of Alaska. Shades of ALIVE! and FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX as the survivors take stock of their supplies and their hopes of rescue or escape. Here again, filmmaker-screenwriter Joe Carnahan displays a master hand as Neeson helps a man with a gushing wound find peace in death: “Who do you love? Let them take you.” Disturbing, as everyone watches this man’s struggle for life, his breathing hitching, each beat of his heart pumping weaker as it meets no pressure; yet tears to your eyes, not for the death, but for the empathy plumbed by Neeson, the pure human understanding.
The fights over leadership ensue; to stay with the wreck or trek through the woods; ransacking dead bodies for supplies, and then – the wolves. Once kept at bay by Neeson, now they surround the periphery of every campfire and conversation, aching to tear the flesh from human hides. We find each survivor to be a clutch of insecurities. Not only must they face their inner demons during their snowbound fleeing, they must outpace and outfight the monsters for whom this hell is simply home. For whom they are simply lunch.
The most amazing thing about this action thriller is that it could have turned into a one-note chase movie, but Carnahan, renowned for shallow piddlers (A-TEAM, SMOKIN’ ACES), turns out an uncharacteristically introspective and moving adventure. THE GREY was lifted from Ian Mackenzie Jeffers’s short story Ghost Walker, and I can only assume that Carnahan stuck closely to the writer’s ideas to pull off such a quality movie. (It’s a common hubris for filmmakers to try to “improve” renowned writers when turning their written words into film – King’s DOLAN’S CADILLAC, Bradbury’s A SOUND OF THUNDER come to mind – failures all! Just stick to the original story!)
The ferocious computer-generated wolves make the puling furballs in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW look like muppets. Dermot Mulroney is unrecognizable under workman’s makeup; Frank Grillo causes trouble by taunting the wolves with his meaty behind.
It could have become shallow at any point, but human intricacies are woven into the fabric of each scene, the super-cool Neeson taking command as cruel-but-fair leader and yet able to coax each man’s emotional center from him. And there is still room for Carnahan to display a creative directorial hand – as any time there is a dangerous accident or stunt, he hurls his camera headlong into the fracas: down a tree trunk, into rapids, off a cliff…
Even the stark ending does not lose the human element, right up to Neeson’s last minutes on film, facing the lead wolf, strapping broken glass to his knuckles… We recall his words to the dying passenger, as we see him embrace those words himself, “Who do you love? Let them take you…”
I love you, Liam Neeson, you Man’s Man-Crush. Come and take me.