Overview: A suicidal rifleman and a collection of rough oil-riggers survive a plane crash only to fight blizzards and man-eating wolves. Open Road Films/Universal Studios; 2011; Rated R; 117 minutes.
The Neeson We Deserve: How ’bout we all agree to forget the Taken series? Can we do that now that we have an action hero from Liam Neeson that is all at once intelligently presented, intense, and straight up tough as hell? In fact, can we go back and retrieve that badass speech from Taken (the series’ only positive moment) and find a way to impose it into a director’s cut of The Grey?
As John Ottway, Neeson is precise in conflicting demands. He carries the movie on the back of grief and mourning, yet he overcomes suffocating despair to convincingly exhibit the authority and strength to command a group of rough-and-tumble tough-men. And he fistfights a wolf. Go home, Taken. You won’t be needed here anymore.
But The Grey is Even More Than That: It’s more than a performance, more than a white-knuckle horrifying plane crash scene, and more than a man vs. nature showdown. Generally, film has the potential to explore philosophy, to address man’s natural place in the world, and to speak toward divinity. But rarely does a single film offer all of those things at once. Rarer still is a film that does all of those things while dressed as a high velocity action movie. The Grey offers an expertly presented psychic landscape, with the colorless setting of the snowy nowhere as an extension of the purgatory of Ottway’s consuming grief. The conflict is created by an existential measurement of nature’s indifference to the existence of man (The wolves aren’t really about wolves, fools! Who cares if they are physically and behaviorally inaccurate?!) Close examination of Ottway’s monologues, letter, and prayers frames the cold indifference or complete absence of God, depending on your perspective. And, depending on your perspective, the end offers a punctuation of defeat or redemption. The triumph of the human spirit or the triumph of nature’s indifference.
Overall: It is this last part that is exceptional. The “depending on” part. Too many movies of “higher genres” and dramatic intent are too quick to answer universal and eternal questions. The Grey is not one of those movies. Rather, The Grey instigates contemplation through its backdrop and through the implications of action sequences that are first rate in technical execution. At once beautiful and jarring, breakneck and philosophical, exciting and emotive, it is an action movie indulgence with more to say on the human condition than most intelligent dramas.