Liam Neeson has spent much of his career playing larger than life characters, both real and fictional: Oskar Schindler, Zeus, Aslan, Rob Roy, Ra’s al Ghul, Qui-Gon Jinn, John ‘Hannibal’ Smith. Yet, bafflingly, it’s his performance as the unkillable ex-spy Bryan Mills in the good-not-great action flick Taken that looks set to become his most iconic. Something about Neeson informing Albanian sex traders about how he would dismantle them with his “very particular set of skills” sent shockwaves through our culture, because, clearly, this was what our culture had long been lacking.
His decision to star in Taken – a quick pay check from a small European production – was likely made without too much concern and consideration. However, the ramifications have been enormous, not just for his career, but for his legacy too. Though he frequently balanced action movies with period dramas in the past, it wasn’t until Taken that Neeson became something of an icon. He was no longer merely a solid, chameleonic actor that could easily go from playing Jean Valjean to the cuddly dad from Love Actually. He is ‘Liam Neeson’; a figure that, in the hearts and minds of men across the world, might as well be greater and grander than a Jedi lion God with his very own ninja army. Thus, expectations for The Grey, in which ‘Liam Neeson’ fights rabid wolves in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, were high.
But Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey is not Taken. Not even close. It is a haunting, existential, and thoroughly gruelling examination of masculinity. It also has spectacular wolf attacks, although the first thing figures greater. Above all, The Grey is the first movie to cast Liam Neeson appropriately since his ascent to pop icon status (much more so than as the impotent Zeus in Clash of the Titans). Here, as the last man standing against the viciousness of nature, he is the pure, distilled essence of man.
When we first meet John Ottway (Neeson), he’s hiding from his mysterious past and keeping to himself at an Alaskan oil field, responsible for shooting the rogue wolves that might endanger the drillers. He contemplates suicide on the eve of his return to the real world, changing his mind once hearing the sorrowful bays of the beasts in the distance. The next day, John and his colleagues board the small plane homeward bound, only for it to go down (in one of the most unsettling and suffocating crash scenes ever committed to film) during a storm. Ottway, and a few survivors (the excellent ensemble of Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, James Badge Dale, Ben Bray, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie) are stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no food, shelter, or protection from the hungry wolfpack encircling them. They do have some alcohol, so there’s that.
*Mild spoilers, here on out.*
From this point on, the guys are picked off one-by-one in typical horror movie fashion, and each of their ends are truly horrifying. But each individual – archetypes of manhood – is wiped out in a metaphorical ‘survival of the fittest’ sense, until, unsurprisingly, only the rational and resourceful Ottway is left. All those unnecessary, ancillary, instinctive aspects of maleness that might tie one to the world – fear, delusion, bravado, paternal instincts, a weak, fleshy form, and finally, faith – are eradicated by nature’s assassins. All that remains is the atheistic, Ron Swanson-esque model of manliness played by Neeson, with no reason to fight except for the inexplicable fire in his belly.
I can’t speak to Ian MacKenzie Jeffers’ short story Ghost Walker upon which the movie is based, but Jeffers and Carnahan’s thoughtful screenplay for the movie seems to question our understanding of what it means to be a man – as well as a human, and even a religious person – in a cruel and oftentimes senseless world. The protagonists beg for signs from God, just so they might know he’s watching over them; that all this violence isn’t just random chaos. But, of course, faith doesn’t work that way. I was reminded of Larry Gopnick from the Coen brothers‘ A Serious Man, asking his Rabbi why the Lord won’t heed his calls: “Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us any answers?” “He hasn’t told me.”
The existential drama under the surface may offer The Grey further depth, but it’s not worth a damn if it’s not conveyed well within its ‘survival thriller’ shell. Thankfully, Carnahan does not fail here either. Where similar pictures rely on a series of set-pieces culminating in another major kill, the nightmarish experiences in The Grey flow seamlessly. Taut to the point of inciting asphyxiation, the sense of impending doom is overwhelming, even during the quieter character moments. The Grey is both a breathtaking thriller and a disturbing elegy for mankind. Many have debated the ambiguous ending, but I think it’s one of the finest in recent memory, and only solidifies Neeson’s performance as one of his best. He begins in our eyes as a deity, is refined into man, and ends as an animal.
The Grey is now showing in Australian cinemas.