Man, Liam Neeson has the blues something fierce. The poor guy has completed one of the oddest transitions of recent memory by going from Oskar Schindler to “Total Bad Ass” in films both criminally overrated (Taken) and glumly forgettable (Unknown). Now in Joe Carnahan’s transcendent survivalist thriller, The Grey, Neeson plays a man named Ottway who is reeling from the kind of blues that lead men to self-inflicted gun shot wounds to the head. The film opens grimly enough with Ottway working on an oil refinery as a wolf sniper in the remote Alaskan wilderness amongst men “not fit for civilization.” He waxes mournfully in voice-over about being separated from his wife (presented to the audience in smartly lit, intimate Nolan-esque slivers of memory) and working “a job at the end of the world.”
One night he walks out from the rowdy violence of the camp bar into the snow to blow his brains out – but then he hears the ghostly howl of those beasts he’s been paid to study and control. He can’t help but wonder if maybe he belongs out there – like the wolves – a stalker – a survivor. He posits himself as much against Mother Nature as he is against his own nature. These opening moments offer the viewer the type of emotional and philosophical trappings not usually found in your typical Hollywood product – especially thrillers of this sort. With the help of his resurrected from the doldrums director, Carnahan (who finally fulfills the promise he showed in Narc after years of wallowing in the mediocrity of La La Land), Neeson completes his evolution as an actor through Ottway. Here we finally have a character who marries the gravity of an Oskar Schindler with the gruff bad-assery of Neeson’s more recent commercial incarnations.
Of course the bulk the of the film concerns Ottway and his motley crew of cohorts surviving a horrific airplane crash on their way to Anchorage only to be stalked through the frozen wilderness by a pack of ravaging and unmerciful wolves. But it returns from time to time to those small moments and to the epic human pondering on live and death. Continue reading