Wolf it down – The Grey review

The Grey - Starring Liam NeesonFrank Grillo and Dallas Roberts. Directed by Joe Carnahan. Rated MA. Originally published February 16, 2012. By Simon Miraudo.

The Grey arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 27, 2012.

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 iconicSomething 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 ActuallyHe 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 GrilloDallas RobertsDermot MulroneyJames Badge DaleBen BrayJoe AndersonNonso 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 Manasking 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.

4.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Grey arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 27, 2012.

7 Responses to “Wolf it down – The Grey review”

  1. The inconsistancy between wolf types (one moment, normal wolf, the next a dire wolf size/shape) ruined it for me.

  2. Did you catch the actual 15 second ending of the film after the final credits – I missed it in the cinema but saw it online?

    • Is that when Nick Fury comes to recruit the wolves? I did indeed see the final 15 seconds after the credits, but it didn’t add much for me. In fact, I think it’s a far more powerful ending as it stands. People aren’t missing much if they don’t see it.

  3. Yes, if you’re going to put in “mild spoilers” in the review you may as well mention to viewers not to stop the disc before the end credits have finished for the “extra” snippet. That made the movie for me, it was getting a bit drawn out towards the end for my taste. Still pretty gripping viewing overall; **** from me.

  4. absolutely hated this utterly offensive, morally bankrupt film that embraces and actively celebrates mans savagery. this film did not view the wolves as the beautiful creatures they are but reduced them to cliche-ridden long-disproved ‘monsters’ who these poor excuses for men had to ‘battle’ with. This film’s lack of understanding for basic animal behavior was wrong-headed at best, inflammatory and dangerous at worse. The ‘characters’ of these men were shot through with violence, misogyny and a hatred of the natural world that Liam Neeson’s character was supposed to be so in touch with. Their disrespectful talk about women turned my stomach and the offensive and revolting things they did with the (rumored real) wolf that they had killed disgusted me. Audience members left in droves from the screening i saw, some in tears, shaken by the unnecessary disrespectful dialogue and actions.
    Not to mention that i have never seen such stupid characters – lets leave the plane, lets head to the woods, lets walk single file instead of huddled for more protection, and NO-ONE was cold, not to mention that if someone fell into a river in such freezing temperatures they would be dead within minutes – ridiculous!
    I (and those with me) hated this despicable movie.

    • you missed the point of the film entirely. in fact i’ll g out on a limb from the “this film did not view the wolves as the beautiful creatures they are” quip, to suggest you had no intentions of liking it. I guess you can’t bag something out unless you actually see it, right?

      this is FAR from a perfect movie but has a brilliant ending belonging to a far greater film. neeson’s character was never portrayed as being in touch with nature. from the very beginning he was a mercenary hunter on the verge of suicide. and yes the wolves are stereotyped cliches (and exaggerated), but so are the men. in fact most of them were meant to be. they were outcasts and despicable types hiding from the world – i guess another point to prove you weren’t paying attention at the beginning because, you know, you were worried about the demonization of the cgi wolves. also not all the men had vile attitudes toward women. what about neeson’s character’s wife? the one guy’s daughter? the entire point of the moving is that a suicidal man with nothing to live for, with no way out, overcomes all the horrors around him (including the loan wolves he’s found himself having to survive with) and ends up choosing to fight for his life in a literal no-way out situation.

      also have you heard of Timothy Treadwell? bears are beautiful right? when intelligent people use the word beautiful to describe carnivorous animals, they also understand they should be respected. as a wildlife ranger in the northern territory, australia, let be tell you i see a lot of beautiful animals daily. a lot of them misunderstood. but all of them capable of being the monsters we fear.

      • Actually, as I attended this screening with no knowledge of what it was or what it entailed, I had every intention of enjoying it. I like survival movies and I enjoy(ed) the actors in this film, so don’t presume to know anything about me or my intentions.
        Secondly – “brilliant ending”? what of someone who should be dead of hypothermia piling up wallets in a forest and then preparing for fisticuffs with a wolf? I guess I expect more of my films then that…. like, I don’t know, coherence and strong non-derivitive narrative and not relying on the illusion of male bravado in place of actual bravery and heroism.
        The wolves aren’t “stereotyped cliches” they are actually false representatives of a threatened species.
        But you are right about the men being “despicable types”, the offensive misogynistic talk in this film was shameful (and made the women I watched the film with very uncomfortable) therefore why would I want to spend two hours of a film watching them?
        I actually was paying attention to the movie, particularly at the beginning as it hadn’t yet sunk to the depths that rest of the film proved it would – there you go making presumptions about me again.
        Neeson’s wife existed purely as a plot point – a motivation for his suicidal tendencies, but yes he did not talk about her in the vile ways the other men talked about women in their lives – bravo for her, of course she had to be dead to get that respect.
        Neeson fought for his life? then why did he do nonsensical things like march off into the woods single file without checking the plane for any communication equipment or food?
        Finally yes I have heard of Timothy Treadwell and I have seen ‘Grizzly Man’ and yes bears are beautiful as are wolves, just because an animal is a carnivorous creature does not negate their beauty and yes of course respect for them must also follow.
        I think the fact that you call an animal behaving as nature intended a ‘monster’ when you have these animals under your care is a shame and a grossly unfair characterisation of them.
        When you look at history, the only real ‘monsters’ to emerge are human.

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