By Clinton Hallahan
Photo courtesy of Liddell Entertainment
Buoyed by a skilled director and strong cast, The Grey rises above its boring premise
Banking heavily on the new Liam Neeson in a constant state of ass-kicking, The Grey is the latest imperfect Joe Carnahan effort I have no choice but to go to bat for. A film centrally concerned with Neeson beating up wolves with his bare hands, The Grey has no business being as good as it is. Once again, material that should have been trite and forgettable turns out to be a solid feature under Carnahan’s direction.
Even with its wolf-beating credentials, The Grey is downright understated next to Carnahan favourites The A-Team, and Smokin’ Aces. Following the trudging Alaskan hinterland journey of a band of airplane crash survivors, the film covers the requisite Alive! and Lord of the Flies territory, but quickly establishes itself as a unique survivalist yarn. Neeson plays Ottway, a hired gun for oil and gas interests in the north, fending off the incursions of wolves on the crews working in remote outposts. Faced with salvaging supplies from a downed airliner and surviving alongside others forced or encouraged to take work away from society, Ottway leads his ad-hoc family in a campaign against a pack of wolves bent on harassing them like so many wounded caribou.
Like any study of personalities and psyches put under the strain of incredible trauma, a sensitive script runs the risk of passing into the territory of the overwrought at any moment. Trite, groan-worthy moments flare out of The Grey at regular intervals, but it’s notable how Carnahan minimizes these moments. Juicing a career performance out of Neeson and solid supporting efforts from Dallas Roberts and Frank Grillo, Carnahan elevates what could have been a painful slumber party of bonding and exposition into a brutal and visually arresting suspense piece, with a haunting and beautiful final scene.
Trying to marry biography with performance is a fool’s errand, but knowing a little bit about Neeson going in is beneficial. Ever the fan of the expository flashback, Carnahan unsubtly establishes some undue end to Ottway’s marriage, an end that haunts Ottway.
Knowing that Neeson’s wife met a tragic end just a few years ago shouldn’t add to the poignancy of his portrayal of Ottway, but it does. The grief of loss and the comfort of her memory aren’t written so much on the face of the character as it is on the actor, making for a harrowing and memorable role.