'The Grey' Review: Faith And Death In A Frozen Hell

In another time, The Grey would have been considered a b-movie, but it would have been the best sort of b-movie: one made with a clever craftman's skill, pulsing with an insistent tension and featuring familiar characters that grow beyond stock types as they reveal their true personalities.

The temptation now is to simply refer to The Grey as an action movie. The film is about a man named Ottway (Liam Neeson) who, with a crew of roughnecks on their way back to civilization from a remote oil field job, crash lands in the Alaskan wilderness, where a pack of wolves stalks the survivors to the last man.

As directed by Joe Carnahan, however, The Grey is also the antithesis of the action-movie template. Most action films exist explicitly to reject death — consider "death-defying stunts," that clichéd huckster's pitch  — and in doing so define an existence in which reality and death are marginalized by the expression of a blind, inextinguishable will to live.

Carnahan's last film, The A-Team, was very much cut from that broad action-movie mold. This one, however, could not be further removed from The A-Team's bluster and bravado. Here, Carnahan employs a fine-tuned instinct for revealing character through action, and directs with a feeling of stability atypical to most action movies. But amid this movie's thrilling beats he places scenes characterized by serene compassion. The Grey is an exiting movie that captures the roughnecks' walk through an icy valley of the shadow of death. It is also a film that accepts human fragility, and suggests that finding faith is a natural step in facing our inevitable end.

Ottway looks, at first, like a character similar to Liam Neeson's hero in Taken, but vulnerability starts to show almost immediately. He is a sharpshooter, hired to protect oil-field workers from wolves as they work in remote Alaskan locations. He goes about his work with a clinical detachment, rather than malice. As an instrument to protect man from nature, he excels; as a man he is far less competent. Ottway says he belongs with the collection of rough men in which he has found himself. The man has some dire past and weakness of character; he mourns a lost love and finds himself at the brink of suicide. But the world calls him back to life.

The Grey builds on a strong backbone: the script, written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from Jeffers' short story 'Ghost Walker.' Carnahan and Jeffers create a collection of men who are instantly recognizable: the quiet guy (Dallas Roberts), the family man (Dermot Mulroney), the tough guy (Frank Grillo), and the big guy who is really a softie (Nonso Anozie). Ottway and the tough guy clash, and the resolution of their conflict is more complex than you might expect.

In fact, Carnahan and Jeffers' script layers several types of conflict, all of which have metaphoric strength: the group fights the wilderness and wolves; they fight among themselves; and several individuals fight their own fears. The on-screen realization of some the battles aren't always successful: The Grey's wolves demand a real suspension of disbelief. But the drive in the script and the determined work by the actors got me through.

I was most fascinated by Ottway's own battle, as a man who has rejected faith. (We can use that word, 'faith,' in a broad way, though one conversation suggests that there is a very specific sort of religious belief at hand.) His dissolute existence is evidence that the rejection is specifically related to being lost at the end of the world.

I would not necessarily call The Grey a religious film, but it does look as keenly at what lies within Ottway as it does at what surrounds him. As the hunter comes to terms with himself and relaxes the need to reject faith, he finds a will to live that is more pure than what previously drove him. This is where the idea of casting Neeson looks like a masterstroke. (Even if it was really serendipity; Bradley Cooper was originally in the role.) Neeson can brawl with men, howl at wolves, and express a real inner being without calling any of those moments into question.

I was moved, too, by several quiet scenes in the film. Immediately after the plane crash, there is a moment where one man is sent off to death with a gut-wrenching tenderness. At another point a character who has battled death with a great gnashing of teeth sits down before a scene of pastoral beauty. Others are aghast: why would he just accept fate now? Because, he says, there couldn't be anything better than what is in front of him. We all lose the fight eventually, so why not take the defeat in a moment of crystalline serenity?

I have been hoping to see Carnahan deliver a film that fulfills the promise of his 2002 feature Narc. As he has dallied with appealing but ultimately unsatisfying schlock like Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, that possibility seemed to grow dim. But The Grey asserts that the Carnahan of Narc was no fluke. This is a good, mature movie that intently addresses far more than the basic survival premise, and in doing so makes a case for taking both The Grey and Joe Carnahan seriously, indeed.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10