Liam Neeson vs. wolves. Neeson has turned into something of an action star since his 2008 hit Taken, and you could definitely do a lot worse when considering a premise for an action film. The Grey, though, takes this seemingly simple, if somewhat vacuous, starting point and does something great with it. It’s not just two hours of a burly and bearded Neeson killing wild man-eating wolves dead (although it does have that, and it’s awesome); it’s also a surprisingly poignant poem on death, survival, and all the visceral adrenaline rushes of man against nature. It’s basically the A-Team meets Call of the Wild.
The film opens with Neeson working for an oil drilling company somewhere deep in the Alaskan wilderness. They’ve got a wolf problem, and Neeson’s character, John Ottway, knows how to kill wolves. “A job at the end of the world,” he calls it. An early scene follows Ottway as he tracks and shoots a wolf outside the walls of the facility. His gear is all-white save for a grey beanie, the dirty off-white fur collar around his neck, and his black, mangy stubble. His skin is thick and ruddy. His eyes are set deep in the backs of their black sockets—almost skull-like. He looks like a wild thing himself; he looks like the dying wolf at his feet. He kneels down and places his hand on the wolf’s side as it achingly takes its last breaths. When it dies, Ottway will feel it go.
This is the beauty of The Grey: it captures the frenzy of the fray and the threshold of the mortal coil. When Ottway and a small group of others survive a plane crash their choices are crystal clear: stay at the crash site and die, or face the wolves and the wild with a chance of finding civilization. No one’s coming to find them. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (who also worked on the 2011 film Warrior), deserves much credit in establishing the characters’ bleak situation. The action scenes are messy with a kind of drunken boxing master beauty—the frantic handheld camerawork doing much to relate the disorientation of the characters. The desaturated colors and the high contrast visuals are also perfect: whether it’s a dark, craggy mountain range against a clear sky or groups of gnarled roots undulating through the snow, there are actually very few shades of grey in this cold world.
The antagonistic wolves are pitch black themselves. They actually have a cartoonish appearance to them. Surreal, distorted, and oversized, the wolves are noticeably CGI creations, and while they rarely look tangible enough to be considered truly photoreal, their nightmarish appearance goes a long way. When Ottway and the alpha wolf stare each other down in the film’s climax, the closeups of each character as revealing as any of the facial landscapes in a Leone film, the decision to not use real wolves is clearly a wise one. The intimacy between the alpha and Ottway in the film’s final moments is afforded precisely because the complications of filming with live animals was avoided. It’s a great example of CGI being used as a storytelling device—in the end there is only Ottway and the wolf. Life and death are now irrelevant. There is only the moment.
The Grey was written for the screen and directed by Joe Carnahan, who also directed The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces, and Narc. The Grey seems a much more comfortable film than those—unafraid to ponder on the meaning of death or have its lead badass recite poetry. The supporting cast seem equally comfortable in their roles, particularly Frank Grillo and Dallas Roberts as the jerk and the mediator of the group, respectively.
This makes The Grey a treasure among action films. It is both fun and thoughtful; ridiculous and sincere; exciting and moving. It’s easily one of the best films of the year thus far. I hope for more in its vein.