Three stars (out of four)
Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day …
You don’t expect poetry at the multiplex in the year’s first month, much less a really good movie.
Yet The Grey delivers on both fronts, literally and metaphorically. All hail Liam Neeson for making it so.
Teaming again with Joe Carnahan, who directed him in the considerably lighter The A-Team, the Irish actor lifts what could have been just another survival thriller towards a higher realm.
As stripped of colour as its title, apart from the red of flowing blood and burning eyes, The Grey urges contemplation on man as the human animal, one suddenly cast into the wilderness where real beasts dwell.
Neeson’s character Ottway is tough but thoughtful, and pursued by demons that are more fearful to him than the feral teeth that await his trespass.
As the security chief of a remote Alaskan oil-drilling complex, his job is to hunt and kill the rapacious wolves that threaten the lives of workers.
He’s a man of few words and fewer niceties, consumed by self-loathing.
Looking around him at the ex-cons, crazies and just plain a-holes he works with, he describes himself as being “surrounded by my own: men unfit for mankind.”
Flashbacks suggest a reason for his misery: a wife (Anne Openshaw) who is no longer with him, the “why” of it not yet clear. His unhappiness is such that he contemplates suicide.
But even men unfit for civilization must sometimes return to it.
Ottway and his team board an aircraft bound for Anchorage, following a path across snow, ice and mountains.
Disaster intervenes. After one of the most realistic — and frightening — air crashes ever committed to film, Ottway jolts out a snow bank to find himself surrounded by bits of burning jet and only a handful of fellow survivors.
Their number includes the even-tempered Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), who immediately supports Ottway as de facto alpha male; the hotheaded Diaz (Frank Grillo), who resents and opposes Ottway; and various grunting go-alongs such as the stoic and bespectacled Talget (Dermot Mulroney).
They aren’t alone. They’ve fallen into the domain of the grey wolf, which lives by its instinct to kill for food and also to establish dominance.
The Grey, with writer/director Carnahan adapting the short story Ghost Walkers by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, proceeds along the Darwinian contours of all survival thrillers, wherein a larger group becomes a smaller one.
The wolves are a blend of animatronics, CGI and reality. They’re convincingly frightening, if sketched much larger in size and temperament than in real life.
Equally realistic are the resourcefulness, determination and rising dread of the desperate survivors, as they try to find a way to get down from the mountain before they run out of food or become it.
We know, or at least suspect, what’s likely to happen. But Neeson keeps us invested in the story, forcing us to root for a man who not long before was all too ready to consign himself to oblivion.
Another set of flashbacks reveal Ottway’s past as a child in Ireland, where his hard father showed a sensitive side by penning poetry, the lines that top this review.
There are many moments in The Grey that make your heart pound. But it also insists that we engage our brains, a rare pleasure for January moviegoing.
And it finally leaves us with a thought that is open to interpretation. Make sure you stick around until the very last credit rolls.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.