“The Grey” is a film that had to have been difficult to market. It has the thrills of a suspense film like “The Fugitive,” the unpredictable deaths of a horror film, truly breathtaking cinematography and stellar acting beyond what’d you’d expect from a film where the main antagonists are a wolf pack that’s a lot more dangerous than “The Hangover’s” hilariously inept pack of Stu, Alan and Phil.
But in the end, when you have a movie this emotionally investing, it doesn’t really matter how you sell it as there’s something for everyone here.
On their way back home from another assignment, a drill team’s plane crashes in Alaska, leaving a pitifully small group of survivors to endure the harsh elements and find some way to safety. That quest becomes even more challenging when they realize they’re not alone as a wolf pack storms their makeshift camp and begins attacking them one by one.
Realizing they can’t stay where they are, Ottway (a brilliant Liam Neeson, reunited with his “A-Team” director Joe Carnahan) convinces the others that their best course of action is to head from the wreckage and away from the wolves’ den.
Before boarding the plane, Ottway was the team’s lone wolf. He stayed to himself, lamenting the end of his relationship with his wife and contemplating suicide. Ottway clings to one memory of his wife that Carnahan films beautifully with flowing sheets over them in bed before jarringly bringing Ottway back to reality of his current plight.
With little chance of survival, the lone wolf has to embrace his pack of survivors and his own will to live if they hope to make it out alive.
The promotional posters and trailers would lead you to believe this is a one-man film, but it’s much more of an ensemble piece as Neeson is one of those stars that doesn’t need to have the film revolve around his every move to remind you he’s the big name. It helps the audience invest in the supporting characters just as much as Ottway.
Whether his subject matters are a band of assassins like in “Smokin Aces,” a beloved 1980s franchise like “The A-Team” or two detectives in “Narc,” Carnahan so skillfully captures his characters’ essence that you quickly come to understand them and their motivations. More importantly, you actually care about them and want to see them overcome whatever challenge he brings their way.
It could have very easily been reduced to a horror film with wolves in the unstoppable killing machine role, but Carnahan isn’t satisfied just making the characters wolf-fodder.
When the wolves start attacking their characters and slowly chip away at their numbers, you’re not on edge waiting on the next scare. Instead, you’re hoping the characters can somehow; some way manage to escape and make it to the next trial.
Dermot Mulroney (“J. Edgar”) and Dallas Roberts (“The File Factory”) provide strong supporting roles, but the most fascinating of the characters is Diaz (Frank Grillo, “Warrior”), who upon initial glance, is the typical macho tough-guy, smart-aleck. But in a remarkable small time-frame, Grillo makes Diaz arguably the most relatable of the survivors. He doesn’t always make the best decisions, he’s brash, he jokes around to mask his own insecurities and looking for some peace he hasn’t enjoyed in a very long time.
Neeson, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed his underrated career, is exceptional. His Ottway isn’t the natural leader and he doesn’t do everything right. He gets frustrated and his plans don’t always work as well as he’d like. In the climatic scene, he sucks you in and tugs at your emotions as he makes one last attempt at surviving an unthinkable nightmare without making you think “wow, this is such a great performance.” He just delivers in every scene.
Maybe because he’s not the superstar on a George Clooney or Brad Pitt level, it’s easier to see him on screen as his character and not big time movie star playing character X or Y.
The ending won’t be for everyone, but it makes for an immensely satisfying and perfectly reasonable conclusion.
Carnahan puts the audience right alongside the survivors, as if the blizzards are nipping at our nose, the wolves are thisclose from ripping away at us and the snow is so blinding it’s hard to make out what’s directly ahead. Under his direction, “The Grey” never feels like a big-time Hollywood production, but as close to man against nature and animal as you’d want to get without being there yourself.
January is usually an awful month for movies. While this probably wouldn’t do too well as a summer blockbuster, “The Grey” hardly belongs in the month of misfit movies. It may very well be the best thrill ride of the year even after August. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10