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The Grey isn’t what you think it is. If you like what you’ve seen in the trailers, you’ll be surprised. If you don’t like what you’ve seen in the trailers, you’ll be surprised.
My point is this: Whatever you’ve seen in the trailers doesn’t matter — The Grey is an affecting, gorgeous, thrilling piece of cinema that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
Truly, it’s one of those rare films that leaves me at a loss. I went from being in awe of Liam Neeson’s infinite badassery — all commercial flights should come equipped with a Mini-Neeson in their seat backs, standard — to openly (relentlessly) sobbing during the second act to arriving home from my screening and promptly taking a shot of whiskey.
Judging by the trailers, you should expect a Cliffhanger-style, Band of Brothers-esque action film. You’ll receive some of that, sure (the slow build of tension throughout is masterfully wielded by director Joe Carnahan, to the extent that you eventually shift in your seat every few minutes, unable to allow a quiet moment to pass). What the trailers don’t tell you is that The Grey is an exercise in accepting death, wrapped in the ragged garb of a survival story. There is so much more emotion — there are so many more intelligent editing and directing decisions — than the marketing would lead you to believe.
The narrative wastes no time getting into things: We’re introduced to Neeson’s character, John Ottway, a man who holds a “job at the end of the world” protecting Alaska oil drillers from wolf attacks. He’s charged with stalking and shooting the predators, day and night, and it’s a solitary profession. He’s haunted by a relationship, which we see through flashbacks of Ottway lying in bed with a woman, bathed in light. He hints that she’s left him, and he’s endlessly tortured by her absence.
A routine flight with a crew of drillers goes horribly awry, and the plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. The crash itself is nothing short of haunting, with flashes of heavenly whiteness back-lighting seated passengers, punctuated by sounds of rushing air and screams. Neeson mentally escapes to his spot in bed with his long-lost love before being jerked back into the present long enough to stare at the cover of the in-flight magazine tucked into his seat back (a detail that feels disturbingly plausible and familiar).
Just seven men survive, but only after we witness a stomach-churning and lump-in-throat-enducing scene between a dying eighth man and Ottway — one that solidifies Neeson in his role as emotionally tortured, honest, strong, savvy survivorman. (Let the record state: When I’m on my deathbed, I’d like Liam Neeson present to guide me out of this life). As the gang gathers warm clothing, food and other supplies, Ottway drops the ultimate knowledge: Rescue planes will never make it to the crash site in time to save them, and the elements aren’t the only hardship they’ll need to deal with. They learn quickly that they’ve landed smack in the middle of wolf country. Ottway, being an expert in the field, explains that wolves have a territorial range of 300 miles and a kill range of 30. In other words, they’ll hunt down whatever is in their way.
The remainder of the film finds our protagonists trekking through tundras and forests, gathering by campfires and touting some rather formulaic musings in the name of character development. As the movie continues, and the body count builds, you’re even treated to the metaphorical alphas and omegas of the human players as compared to those of their wolf counterparts. The story doesn’t attempt to trick you, or to be anything more than what it is on a very simple level — because it pays off, in spades. The Grey earns its kills, and it makes bold decisions regarding every twist and turn, choosing when to show you gore and when to keep an outcome off screen.
The setting is a character in itself, and Carnahan expertly allows each scene to build and release tension. Attacks aren’t relegated to nighttime ambushes or jump-scare tricks. You’re entrenched in the elements along with the group; the score is bare, allowing nature (notably, to incredible effect, the almost otherworldly muffled silence that’s achieved by falling snow) to set the tone. The cinematography achieves a gorgeous sparseness, an almost poetic harmony with the elements. The kills in this movie are so beautiful, it feels wrong to think so. One particular day scene involving the men trekking across a snow-drenched tundra shows two wolves descending through the falling white — gray specks that slowly come into focus until they attack a straggler, and it’s borderline operatic. As their victim bleeds out, the red fills a wolf paw print in the snow. It’s a jaw-dropping moment.
One thing the trailers do tell you is that this is undoubtedly Neeson’s movie — although he does receive some formidable competition from the incredible Frank Grillo (who held his own alongside epic talent in last year’s Warrior, and, I dare say, stole the show at moments). The Grey is no exception for Grillo, who plays fiery, changeable Diaz , the only member of the group who will defy Ottway. Dermot Mulroney also leaves his mark, in a small but integral role.
Even now, two weeks later, I’m incapable of writing words about this movie without feeling choked up. I’m keenly aware that this is one of those films that hits you out of nowhere, that’s marketed to make you believe one thing, but delivers something opposite (although astounding, nonetheless). I’m all too terrified that it’ll go the way of one of my favorite movies of last year, the criminally slept-on Warrior.
Regardless of box-office success, I have all the respect in the world for Carnahan, who returned to his Narc roots with The Grey, and made some truly brave decisions. I’ll champion the film to the ends of the earth. Its slogan, “Live or die on this day,” means far more than you’d imagine, and I hope you’ll trust me: See The Grey, and discover why for yourself.
The Grey opens Friday nationwide.