“The Grey” is being advertised as Liam Neeson versus killer wolves, which does a disservice to the film. This is a intense, emotional journey of a group of men trying to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness.
The film opens with Neeson’s Ottway writing a letter to his wife who for reasons unknown has left him. Knowing anything about Neeson’s personal life adds extra weight to this scene. Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson died in 2009.
You can hear the genuine pain in Neeson’s voice discussing his fictional wife. Images of the character’s wife haunt him throughout the movie building to a heartbreaking revelation that makes you wonder if the wife aspect of the script was the reason Neeson took the role in the first place.
The film centers on a group of seven roughneck oil-rig workers who survive a horrific plane crash, but are left in dire weather conditions and with ticked off wolves after them.
This premise of wolves actively hunting humans stretches credibility, but if you are able to look past that, the film is handled in a way that is thoughtful and, within the context of the film, believable.
Co-written and directed by Joe Carnahan, who made the bombastic “Smoking Aces” and “A Team,” “The Grey” has a measured pace that allows for character development. The film isn’t essentially character study of men and what it truly means to be a man.
The film was shot in British Columbia and the actors very often seem to battling against real snow storms. The authenticity of these scenes in the wilderness helps create tension. There are tautly suspenseful scenes, particularly one involving how the men will cross a ravine.
Those expecting a lot of action are going to be disappointed. The film is more interested in quiet moments rather than big action scenes. There are surprisingly philosophical conversations on faith and fear.
We don’t learn much about these characters' back stories. “The Grey” is in a long-standing tradition of movies about men. Much like a lot of war movies, the characters each represent an archetype: There’s the family man (Dermot Mulroney), the obnoxious loud mouth (Joe Anderson), the tough guy who is more bark than bite (Frank Grillo), the smart, rational guy (Dallas Roberts) and, of course, the reluctant leader (Neeson).
In “The Grey,” the group dynamic is also meant to run parallel with the wolf pack that is tracking and killing them for intruding on their territory. Neeson’s character is the alpha of the group. His authority is challenged by Grillo, who is very easily put in his place.
Each actor gets a moment or two to stand out. Mulroney has a touching monologue about his daughter. Outside of Neeson, Grillo has the most interesting character. For the most of the movie he a detestable jerk, but he slowly begins to redeem himself until finally you find yourself surprised by how much you actually care about him.
Then there is Neeson, who as he approaches his 60th birthday, has reinvented himself as the thinking man’s action star. Neeson does tortured hero better than just about anyone. His low, soothing voice can easily burst in a booming snarl that would make even the most vicious wolf cower.
Don’t be fooled by the trailers. “The Grey” is a well crafted, intelligent piece of filmmaking. Those anticipating brutal man on wolf battles will be greatly letdown. This is an emotionally draining film, but one worth watching.