THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Liam Neeson and friends find that wolves aren't as awesome as they appear on Wal-Mart t-shirts.
The Grey begins with a lonely, depressed oil rigger named John Ottway (Liam Neeson) thinking about shuffling off this mortal coil. He flashes back to a woman he loved but, for reasons initially unclear, is no longer with him. We sense great sadness and loss; he is obviously a man for whom death would be an end to misery. Ottway ends up not doing himself in, though. When the plane loads up to whisk the workers of a remote Alaskan rig to safety as a brutal storm approaches, he boards it. Then that plane crashes in the wilderness, leaving only Ottman and a few others alive. As they begin to plan how to get rescued, it becomes apparent that a pack of hungry wolves is circling them. This, my friends, is a textbook example of “out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
Ottway knows a thing or three about survival. He finds himself in the position of leader, orchestrating a move toward what he hopes will be civilization, or at least safety. The wolves, however, are constantly tracking them, and occasionally pouncing. (There's a chill-inducing shot in which the survivors see only the animals' glowing eyes in the darkness.) As one man after another perishes to either the wolves, or nature, or both, Ottway realizes that his death wish may come to pass after all.
This movie left me rattled. When it was over, I felt like I needed a cigarette and a shot of vodka to calm down. But since I don't smoke or drink, there was little to do other than walk outside, look up at the sky, and let my nerves gradually settle. The Grey is seriously intense. Director Joe Carnahan brings an air of dread to the entire story. His use of surround-sound wolf howls keeps the imminent danger on our minds every second of the running time. When the creatures attack, it is often during moments when we aren't anticipating it; several times, I jumped in surprise. The grainy, gray (no pun intended) cinematography makes the wilderness look menacing, especially in a third act sequence where the remaining characters cross a chasm. There's not a lot of breathing when you watch this movie. It makes you hold your breath at regular intervals, and scarcely gives you time to exhale. (Note: That's just barely hyperbole.)
While it's a great action movie, The Grey works so effectively because of what's under the surface. This is an existential tale of survival, one that asks the question: “If you knew death was almost certain, would you fight anyway, or would you simply throw in the towel?” Ottway initially wants to die. Then he decides to live and is put in a situation where he nearly dies anyway. After that, the threat of death surrounds him continually. One by one, his colleagues fall victim. Conditions get less and less favorable for surviving. The men debate whether to continue on or just accept their fate. All of this leads to a very powerful epiphany for Ottway in the film's final moments. What he does – and why he does it – provides The Grey with an ending that doesn't easily leave your consciousness. Days later, I still find myself thinking about it.
Liam Neeson is superb in the lead role, showing us how the character struggles with the “fight or die?” question. Joe Anderson, Dermot Mulroney, and Frank Grillo do solid supporting work. Again, because it's the themes that drive the action, there is a human element in the movie that is never lost, even when planes are crashing and wolves are chomping on people.
Nature is brutal and unforgiving. Ottway and the others struggle with whether having faith will save them or make them more vulnerable. Some viewers may have trouble with that concept, but I think the movie approaches it with honesty. The ending could conceivably be interpreted two ways – and it probably will be. I have my own opinion of what it all means, which I will not share here so as to avoid getting all spoiler-y. Suffice it to say that The Grey will challenge and excite you. How often can you say that about an action picture? Not nearly enough.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Grey is rated R for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
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