(2012) Action Thriller (Open Road) Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw, Peter Girges, Jacob Blair, Lani Gelera, Larissa Stadnichuk. Directed by Joe Carnahan
In the deep heart of the North, it is always cold, a block of unforgiving ice that will freeze all hope. Only the strong may roam freely there and even those know the harsh reality of life – that as strongas you are, there is always something stronger and more fierce.
John Ottway (Neeson) has that same cold place in his own heart. He is a contractor at an Alaskan oil pumping station, working with roughnecks in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization. He is on the security detail, making sure that the men are protected from grey wolves and other Arctic predators. However, there is a predator inside him, one that has eaten him alive. His wife (Openshaw) has left him to his loneliness and that burden is one he can no longer carry.
He intends to kill himself, takes his high-powered rifle and puts it in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger. Instead, he heads back to his barracks and waits for his contract to be up so he can go home with the other roughnecks who have worked their contract.
They board a small plane, ready to fly to Anchorage and from there to points beyond but the plane never makes it there. It crashes in the wilderness, leaving a handful of survivors. The weather is freezing, with a blizzard making visibility nearly zero. There are many dead and dying, like Lewenden (Dale) who is frightened but eased into the abyss by Ottway.
It becomes clear they aren’t alone in the wilderness when Ottway spots one of the stewardesses whimpering in the underbrush. He goes to rescue her and realizes that she was being eaten by a wolf. Ottway believes that they’ve had the unfortunate luck to crash in the midst of the territory of the wolves who take exception to the intrusion.
Things get worse when Hernandez (Bray) who’s on watch is killed and partially eaten by a wolf. Knowing that they are exposed in the wreck with little means of defending themselves, Ottway believes their best chance is to head south and hopefully exit the territory of the predators. He also knows that nobody will be looking for them terribly hard.
As the men make their way through the unforgiving wilderness, they come to terms with their impending mortality, the existence (or non) of God, and the significance of their lives. As they fall to the cold, the terrain and to the wolves, soon it becomes clear that the cold heart of the North is a grey wasteland of death and redemption.
Carnahan, whose body of work includes Smokin’ Aces, does some of the best work of his career. This is not your ordinary wilderness survival film; these are no cardboard cutout characters with heroes and villains vying for control in the elements. These are hard men, worn down by hard lives whose tough fronts begin to crumble when faced with horrible death. There is an awful lot of that, from wolf attacks to falls to freezing to death.
Neeson has made a career transformation from an Oscar-caliber dramatic actor to an action star. Pushing 60, the rugged Neeson has become king of the beginning of the year action flicks, with success in both Taken and Unknown coming in the first two months of their respective years. As with those films, he lends The Grey gravitas, bringing the inner turmoil of John Ottway to the surface but only in a subtle way, one that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film or ever ring false
Carnahan also cast his film with mostly character actors who are largely not well known to the general public, although some might recognize Mulroney from My Best Friend’s Wedding – he is virtually unrecognizable here. Grillo and Roberts also deliver strong performances.
Part of the allure of The Grey is the cinematography. Masanobu Takayanagi brings the snow-covered landscape of British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) a kind of stark but majestic beauty. The cold is almost palpable through his fine work.
While there are some gruesome scenes of wolf attacks and of human remains, both from the plane crash and the attacks, the action here is almost more internal than external (not that the latter is lacking in any way shape or form). This is about the journey and not so much the destination. The movie is based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also wrote the first draft of the script) and if the movie’s Nietzschean themes are any indication, it might be worth checking out.
The movie has been getting a fair amount of critical acclaim with a lot of folks surprised at how good it is. For my part, Carnahan has done some good work and has exceeded expectations here. Nobody should be surprised that Neeson delivers such a fine performance – while not Oscar worthy perhaps, it certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the year.
REASONS TO GO: A raw, unadulterated survival film. Neeson again gives a strong performance.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a bit too Nietzsche for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images of the wolf attacks and their aftermath are awfully disturbing, and there’s plenty of bad language for all.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carnahan, Neeson and producers Tony and Ridley Scott previously worked together on The A-Team.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100. The reviews are solidly positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back
SNOW LOVERS: There is plenty of it on the ground and falling from the sky. This is as cold-looking a movie as you’re ever likely to see.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Garden