Liam Neeson battles nature and puts up a damn good fight in director Joe Carnahan's absorbing and devastating survival pic, The Grey.
The film tells the scary and surprisingly emotional tale of Alaskan oil drillers who find themselves stranded in the middle of frozen tundra after their plane crashes. There's scant chance of survival due to a lack of food, shelter and time before people freeze to death.
There's also the little matter of nasty, evil wolves trying to dismember them. The animals in The Grey have very little in common with White Fang. Actually, they make the werewolf from An American Werewolf in London look like an elderly pug.
Neeson, in a performance that regains him a lot of respect after trash like Taken and Unknown, plays Ottway, a depressed sharpshooter working as a wolf exterminator for an oil-drilling company. If a wolf is preparing to pounce on one of his co-workers, it's his job to pick it off with a rifle before teeth go into leg.
Ottway has seen better days, and is dealing with depression brought on by an undisclosed event involving his wife. He isn't in the best shape when he boards a plane with his co-workers, and his mood doesn't brighten when the plane goes down in a truly harrowing sequence.
And so starts a survival ordeal that makes Lord of the Flies look like summer camp. To prevent anarchy, Ottway becomes the de facto leader, or alpha, of the group, trying to share his knowledge of the animals with his fellow strugglers. They take his survival coaching with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Chief among his detractors is Diaz (played superbly by Frank Grillo), an ill-tempered ex-con who is chastised early on by Ottway for trying to steal stuff off of dead bodies from the crash. This gets their relationship off to a bad start, and the Diaz-Ottway showdown becomes one of the film's more-compelling human interactions. Grillo takes a role that starts out looking like your typical movie baddie, and winds up doing so very much more with it. He's going to get noticed for this turn.
Also in the group are Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) as the young guy who talks too much, and Dermot Mulroney (who keeps getting better with age) as the older, regular Joe of the group. As with Grillo, each actor takes his part and turns it into something memorable and moving. They make you care a lot for these guys, and when characters start dying off, it hits hard.
Carnahan, who worked with Neeson on the underwhelming The A-Team, finally delivers on the promise showed by 2002's Narc. The Grey is a lot deeper than I expected a wilderness-survival movie to be. There's a scene in the film in which Ottway talks a man through death, and this scene will stand as one of the more emotionally true and moving scenes of the year. Yes, I know it is only January.
Would timber wolves really track and systematically pick off a group of men as they do in this film? I don't know. I do know that the way Carnahan presents the whole ordeal is as much horror movie as it is survival yarn, and the film made me jump on more than one occasion. He does such a great job with the presentation that I really don't care how much of it was authentic and true-to-life.
The film comes off as some sort of man-vs.-nature nightmare that a dude might have after, say, encountering a timber wolf on a snowshoeing expedition, and then taking acid before going to sleep. It's a stellar, crazy, scary trip.
The wolves themselves are a mixture of practical and computer effects. Not every shot works, and a few have that "fake" look. The shots that do work are solid, and good enough to forgive those few moments when it's obvious you aren't looking at a real wolf.
As for the actual mauling scenes, I haven't been this distraught watching movie animals attack humans since Harold Perrineau was torn apart by a grizzly bear in The Edge. Remember that? That scene, with Perrineau screaming for mercy, actually made me cry like a baby. I cried in the theater, and I developed a general aversion to bears ... especially big, mean bears. I still like baby polar bears, though. They are mighty cute before they start trying to eat your face off.
With The Grey, we are looking at 2012's first great movie, and one that might've garnered Neeson and Grillo some 2011 Oscar consideration had it been delivered last month. I'm curious to see if their names come up 11 months from now.
See the movie—and stay through the credits.