By JAMES MELVILLE
So…the Super Bowl happened, I guess. Giants vs. the, um…the Yankees?
Yeah, I got nothing.
The Grey (2011):
The Plot: In the frozen, desolate wasteland that is Alaska, an oil-drilling team fights to survive after a plane crash strands them in the wilderness. Leading them is Ottway (Liam Neeson), a man driven to the brink of suicide by the loss of his wife. Before the crash, his job was to shoot wolves that came onto the drilling sites. In a hilarious turn of events, it looks like the team is stranded…right in the wolves’ territory! And by “hilarious,” I mean “deadly serious.” Not a comedy, kids. Hundreds of miles from civilization, and without any hope of being rescued, the men look for a way out, fighting against the freezing cold and their own fatigue. And, of course, the wolves.
Now, a lot of people—myself included, at first—thought that this movie would be two hours of Liam Neeson punching wolves. Sounds pretty cool, right? Heck yes it does. I could watch that guy punch stuff all day. Me too, disembodied voice. Me too. Remember how the trailer has Liam Neeson, with broken bottles taped to his hands, preparing to charge a wolf? Yeah, that’s super misleading. This isn’t Taken 2: The Streets of Alaska. Although, let’s be honest, we’d all watch the shit out of that movie.
But enough of what we foolishly expected from The Grey. For the sake of shattering the illusions that you hold so dear, I should probably explain that while Liam Neeson is pretty badass in this film, he *SPOILER* doesn’t punch a single wolf. I mean, if you think about it, that would actually be a pretty stupid thing to do. Instead, Ottway has to use his wits, and what little resolve he has left just to stay alive. Because whatever the trailers may have led us to believe, The Grey isn’t a dumb action movie. It’s a very tense, very well made story of survival.
But this film isn’t about wolves or hunting; it’s not a how-to for living in the wilderness. Going into a movie about guys being hunted by wolves, it’s pretty fair to expect a lot of clichés, and some pretty cool—if totally unrealistic—man vs. wolf fighting. But The Grey doesn’t do things the obvious way. Though this is certainly a tense film, there are plenty of quiet moments. Characters think, reflect, joke, panic, or howl and throw the decapitated head of an Omega back into a pack of wolves. They act like human beings, and by God, is that refreshing. Part of what makes The Grey so compelling is the dignity that it allows its characters, even when they’re at their worst.
As I said earlier, Neeson’s character is suicidal at the beginning of the film. His wife is gone and he sees nothing left to live for. The plane crash, the wolves, the freezing cold; they give purpose to Ottway’s empty life. Once the outsider of the group, he now begins to see beyond his own pain and into the lives of the other men. So do we. That isn’t just a novelty, a trick to manipulate the audience’s emotions when the wolves attack. There are no cheap deaths. Some of the men die suddenly, and their teammates don’t always have the time to pause and reflect, but each death has a weight to it.
I told you that this is a survival movie. That’s technically true, but not entirely accurate. The Grey is about fighting to the end, and dying well. It would be a mistake to read the idea of a good death as macho posturing. This isn’t 300. “Dying well” means accepting the end, and meeting it with dignity. In a moment of rare openness, Ottway talks about his father, a frequently drunk, sometimes abusive Irishman who tried to make up for his faults through poetry. However strained their relationship might have been, Ottway has come to live his life by a short poem written by his father: “Once more into the fray. Once more into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”
Should you see this film? Absolutely. It may not be a happy movie, but it is a good one. Just make sure you don’t go in expecting Liam Neeson to punch a wolf.
The Grey is directed by Joe Carnahan, who you may know from such greats as Smokin’ Aces and the recent A-Team remake. While that isn’t exactly an impressive resume, Carnahan delivers this time. Oh, boy, does he.
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