Starring Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie
Directed by Joe Carnahan
“Live or Die on This Day…Live or Die on This Day.”
Those haunting words hang over Joe Carnahan’s newest survivalist flick THE GREY like an ominous beacon foreshadowing things to come for the characters who survive a devastating plane crash only to find out they’ve got bigger problems- they’ve intruded on the hunting grounds of some very large and very pissed off wolves.
At the start of THE GREY, we meet our rather downtrodden protagonist Ottway (Liam Neeson) who’s been working for some time as a guard of sorts at a remote oil refinery in Alaska. His job is to keep his fellow co-workers safe from the roaming wildlife in those parts- wolves in particular. In the opening narration by Neeson, we learn that he and his co-workers are pretty much at pretty much a bunch of guys that society has given up on- ex-convicts and the like- and Neeson himself is at his breaking point. He tells us his wife has left him and basically he has nothing left to contribute to the world, no legacy to leave and as he prepares to commit suicide in the middle of the frozen tundra that surrounds him, something stops him and he suddenly realizes, he isn’t ready to give up on his life just yet.
Unfortunately for him, Neeson is soon forced to test just how much fight he has left in him when the very next day the plane that he and his co-workers are on heading back closer to civilization abruptly goes down in the middle of nowhere and after an incredibly harrowing and intense plane crash sequence, Neeson finds himself somehow alive and realizes the gravity of the situation. If he and his fellow survivors try and stick it out at the plane, they’ll die from lack of supplies and exposure. If they try and make it to the nearby tree line to search for any sort of civilization, most likely they’ll end up meeting their demise courtesy of a nearby angry wolf pack the group has disturbed by inconveniently landing amidst their hunting grounds.
Throughout THE GREY, we then see the group dynamic come together at first and then gradually begin to break apart due to constant peril, fear and exhaustion (or as “Family Guy” would put it: “A little friends becoming enemies, enemies becoming friends”). By the end, Neeson must find the fight deep within himself to keep everyone alive and driven to survive the hand fate has dealt them when he comes face to face with the creatures that have been stalking them ever since they crashed.
As you can see, THE GREY is far more intelligent than your typical survivalist thriller and isn’t necessarily what you’d call straight-up horror either. More akin to movies like ALIVE, Adam Green’s FROZEN or even GRIZZLY MAN – Carnahan does an incredible job here with balancing the sheer terror of Neeson and the rest of the survivors” situation and giving audiences a group of survivors to actually root for. And while there are a lot of great dramatic and emotionally-fueled moments in THE GREY, the movie also packs a few scares and some gore in there too to keep the horror purists happy, all while masterfully avoiding going too heavy on the melodrama.
The very realistic and gritty manner in which Carnahan presents his survive-against-all-odds tale is what makes THE GREY so powerful as we’re almost forced as viewers to look within ourselves throughout the story and imagine what we would do, how we would react, and what how far we’d go in order to make it out of an unforgiving terrain that is far more fit for beast than man.
Neeson delivers another brilliant turn here in THE GREY, further solidifying he’s the best at what he does: bring ass-kicking characters to life that also manage to emotionally resonate with audiences. He’s always been a favorite of mine since Sam Raimi’s DARKMAN and while I enjoy a lot of his earlier work, he’s an actor that seems to only get better the longer he keeps at it, which is a rarity these days. I’d consider his performance here to be one of my favorite three from Neeson in fact.
In terms of supporting characters, Carnahan rounds out the cast of THE GREY with an impressive ensemble of talented players. Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson and Nonso Anozie (who I really enjoyed in last year’s CONAN reboot) all deliver strong performances but it’s Frank Grillo’s turn as Diaz, the antagonist to Neeson’s Ottway, that ends up being the biggest standout in the film. Usually in films, the ‘jerk’ character is someone whose sole purpose is to get audiences to root harder for the hero by continually being a jerk to everyone around him and never truly learns his lesson. Carnahan and his co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers smartly give Diaz an actual character arc, making him a ‘jerk’ you actually want to see survive this whole mess of a situation instead of making him a thinly-drawn character just there to ‘stoke the fires.’
In terms of ‘monsters’, Carnahan went to the best to design his fearsome beasts- KNB, who once again turn in some truly superb design work here. The wolves appear freakishly large with a wildly fearsome appearance, making them suitably threatening monsters for Neeson to conquer in the film. The Alpha Male wolf design, bigger and much badder than the rest of his fellow pack, reminded me of “The Nothing” from THE NEVERENDING STORY and is certainly an awe-inspiring and terrifying sight to behold whenever he comes into frame.
For those of you who have felt like there’s been substance lacking in recent genre-esque films (THE THING prequel, I’m looking in your general direction), then THE GREY should no doubt be exactly the kind of movie you’re looking for. With an incredibly poignant and charismatic ensemble of players led by the always stellar Neeson, THE GREY gives you something to think about while you’re sitting in your theater seat, white-knuckling the arm rests as you watch these men pushed to the brink (and usually, beyond). Far more than another simple man versus nature parable, THE GREY demonstrates just how being thrown into a life-or-death situation can rekindle hope in even the most hopeless of souls.
4.5 out of 5