Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
Joe Carnahan, let’s face it, is not a generation-defining auteur when it comes to intelligent contemporary cinema. His past projects have been shallow, derivative, and if anything, mindless diversions from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. While earlier marketing campaigns for The Greysuggested that the film was merely just another big-budget actioner in the same vein as Carnahan and Neeson’s respective recent filmographies, it does continue this trend by way of pure visceral intensity, yet to say that I was genuinely taken aback by how mature and steadfast this production remained in its surprisingly humanistic sensibilities would be an understatement. That being said, Carnahan and the gang have essentially struck gold with more than fairly competent blend of your run-of-the-mill survival flick and an emotionally compelling commentary on the complexities of the human condition when paired with such a devastating predicament.
Wolves. The not-so-captivating centerpiece of the aforementioned marketing mishaps leading up to The Grey‘s opening day. Granted, they do quickly become the bane of our ill-fated laborers’ existence following a horrific (and brilliantly executed) plane crash, however to assume that the entire film revolves solely around Neeson stabbing them all to death in gung-ho fashion is plain asinine on your part. While the film does seem to pride itself on periodic bouts of brutal, prolonged violence, the scenes in question serve only to illustrate and subsequently accentuate the unforgiving foreign environment our fledgling survivalists are unwillingly flung into. Blatant Man vs. Nature philosophical musings aside, The Grey‘s more involving sequences actually don’t feature a helpless Alaskan oil crewman getting his jugular torn out, given how well Carnahan implements the film’s wonderful air of humanity regarding its characters’ overall development.
Sure, there’s a fair amount of stereotyping to blame for the film’s lesser moments, whether it’s Neeson’s titular omniscient badass or the stubborn ex-con that simply refuses to take orders from the only person that actually knows what he’s doing or talking about. This aside, The Grey reaches a plane of human emotion and understanding no film of its type has ever reached before, focusing primarily on Neeson’s Ottway and the loss of his wife as he desperately clings to her memory to brazenly pave the way toward his dwindling troupe’s next life-or-death decision. As each unwitting party member begins to succumb to their own respective fates, we’re offered but a smidgen of these characters’ backgrounds so as to effectively force us to care that much more about them and their potential plight. Whether you agree with this approach or not, Carnahan’s surprising visual finesse does wonders for the film as a whole, especially during periodic flashbacks centering on Ottway and his lost love, making the proceedings that much more engaging by way of a visceral, big-budget feel that makes the characters’ eventual catharses and bouts of sheer hopelessness stand out and hit that much harder.
In addition to merely braving the elements, The Grey also sports a questionable dogmatic agenda that will or won’t appeal to the masses. Certain individuals question their faith and the idea of an afterlife as often as they do their next step on their perilous sojourn through the Alaskan wilderness. Fortunately for us, everyone involved is portrayed nearly flawlessly by a cast helmed by the one and only Liam Neeson, of whom gives his best performance in recent memory. Seemingly channeling real-life emotion into each moment that not-so-subtly addresses his own personal demons, Neeson brings enough conviction to the role to both reestablish himself as a more than capable leading man and one of today’s best working actors following a string of mindless hit-or-miss action-thrillers. The supporting cast also brings a substantial amount to the table, tackling their respective roles with adequate fervor as the terror-stricken group uneasily makes each transition from one life-or-death situation to the next.
As a multifaceted big-budget survival flick with a heart, The Grey fires on all cylinders. Both delivering in the realm of compelling, exceedingly violent yet not too over-the-top action sequences and authentic human emotion surrounding the central characters’ anguish regarding their loved ones, Joe Carnahan has essentially taken a turn for the better. Neeson’s Ottway remains the film’s most compelling key element, boldly leading his ragtag team of former coworkers through the unforgiving wilderness while remaining vulnerable and far from your typically invincible protagonist. The film’s oft-discussed philosophical musings pertaining to death, faith and nature’s fury will undoubtedly divide audiences, however to deny the surprising amount of effective emotional complexity the film sports would be unfair considering how rarely this approach has been implemented elsewhere. Misleading marketing campaign aside, The Grey is more than just your typical January release, standing tall as a remarkably insightful, appropriately brutal and emotionally poignant survival thriller with dynamite performances that further permeate the above average proceedings.