The Grey, on the face of it, doesn’t have great pedigree. Director Joe Carnahan’s most recent film was 2010’s critical punchbag The A-Team. Liam Neeson’s career trajectory – a fascinating thing in its own right – has seen him mired as an archetypal grizzled action man in such shoot-first-think-later fluff as Taken and Unknown. Re-watching Schindler’s List these days you half expect him to punch his way into the Reichstag to lay der smack down on Adolf himself. And the subject matter – essentially a plane-crash survival movie – promises little beyond the utterly generic.
But let’s not be hasty. Pigeonholing directors as hacks is a recent phenomenon (Such immortals as Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock made a few duds in their sophomore days). Neeson-wise, there’s nothing wrong with grizzled per se – for example, his small role is probably the best thing in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York – and he has never been more gruff and stony than in The Grey. And while the film is definitely a genre piece – you might even call it a B-movie – we know these days that the constraints of genre can quite poetically portray deeper truths than what we call ‘the art film’. Certainly Spielberg can tell you more about childhood and loss than, say, Almodovar.
The story, then: Neeson is John Ottway, a middle-aged, morose deadbeat marooned in an oil station in the frigid Alaskan wilds. His job is to snipe off wolves and other maleficent critters, protecting his roustabout misfit colleagues as they go about their drilling and cussing. On a routine flight back to civilization (or, at least, Fairbanks), Ottway’s plane is beset by terrible weather and crashes. Ottway and six others somehow survive the crash, only to be faced down by a pack of malignant wolves; the group begin a trudge southward in a hopeless quest for safety, with little more than wits and sticks for protection.
So you and your mind's eye can probably take it from there. But this is an entirely superior treatment of ‘survival thriller’. From a merely technical point of view, it is beautifully executed. The crash itself is a veritable Saving-Private-Ryan-Omaha-Beach of a plane crash. The performances too: Neeson is stellar, but the supporting cast are entirely excellent. Carnahan’s directorial flourishes also take this above the usual multiplex fare. His dream sequences evoke those feverish reality-bending dreams you have after catching influenza, and his refusal to turn Alaska into picture postcard is also a bold choice.
But what of these ‘deeper truths’ that I’m rambling on about? Well, the key theme that I took away was that of faith versus natural law, which is another way of saying – what is it to be human? Ottway has rejected his faith, but would love to believe (his own eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani? moment is a highlight – Neeson reminding us that he really can act) and it is fascinating to see his growing comprehension of the nature’s magnificent indifference to the plight of the survivors. They haven’t been saved ‘for some reason’; they simply happened not to die when the plane crashed. A bleak, fatalistic outlook maybe, but truthful – and courageous. Anyone inclined to Buddhist teachings would do well to see The Grey.
There are occasional mis-steps: the parallels between animal and human social order are sometimes a little over-egged. Also there is an entirely pointless and deflating post-credits scene that I urge you to avoid (I can’t bloody stand – or even understand – this craze for post-credits scenes). Finally it’s worth noting that the films has been somewhat mendaciously pitched as a gung-ho action flick, which it is not – while it might help pack ‘em in, it will also lead to the film missing its real audience: lovers of great American cinema.