The Grey is a triumph of mismarketing. It pays off the collateral of Taken and Unknown – Liam Neeson’s late-career, out of nowhere, more than welcome transformation from Serious Actor into Charles Effing Bronson – by luring Neeson’s new audience to watch full movie built on slyly different intentions than those two decent Eurotrash thrillers about, in both cases, a man driven over the edge and into asskickerdom.
When you watch The Grey, Neeson is already well over the edge, and firmly established in the arts of asskickerdom; he’s dangling off the edge of the world, in fact, at a hellish Arctic gulag / oil pumping station where his day to day is earned by shooting the wolves that circle the compound with his sniper rifle. Narrating a letter to his departed wife over the opening montage, Ottway is isolated and despairing, and spends a portion of the night before his flight online sucking on the wrong end of his rifle.
The other men at the compound are a rangy assortment of na’er-do-wells, and no sooner can you say Con Air than they’re packed into a plane headed for home, which crashes into the Arctic tundra. Break out the broken airline bottles, boys, it’s time for some wolf-punching, right?! But no. The movie promised by the trailers released online free, where survivalist takes on wolves like he did the corporate saboteurs of his previous films, never arrives. There’s even a moment where Liam – A man’s man writ large, a mountain standing against a snowy sky – openly mocks the notion of fistfighting a wolf at all, when it emerges from one of the sub-literate testosterone puddles in his group of survivors.
Sure, The Grey is still a survival thriller, and a fitfully successful online. The seven survivors of the plane crash must head for civilization or stay in the fuselage and die, so Ottway makes like Moses and points his flock towards the promised land. The odds would be long indeed, were it not for the wolves; once the midnight howling starts and man after man is picked off by circling black shadows that wait just outside the reach of the firelight, The plot makes its primary intentions clear. It’s not quite Frozen, with that film’s flawless what would happen if logic towards unlikely cold weather survival scenarios, but then, Frozen only had three people up on that mountain, and The Grey has more than half a dozen poor guys to creatively dispatch over the course of its two-hour race through wolf-strewn tundra.
It’s The Grey’s secondary intentions, though, that make me like watching the movie so much. If you told me that Neeson and his handlers endured Taken and Unknown just so that they could emerge on the other end with a re-branded Liam who could get movies like Cold Pursuit greenlit without anyone bothering to read the script, I’d believe you. “Men vs. the Wolves? Sign it, boys, sounds grand!” I’m not in the business of psychoanalyzing filmmakers or actors for free, because what the hell do I know anyway, but certain elements of the theme and scenario kept me dwelling on an unavoidable connection.
I think Liam Neeson went up that mountain to make a movie about the death of his wife. Natasha Richardson died on a mountain too, and the mixture of unalloyed despair, and hairtrigger physical violence, in the Neeson character seems emblematic to me. When he doesn’t have someone to corral or wolves to withstand, I half expected the camera to find him off on his own somewhere, punching trees. Grief and rage and death and love; It seems like catharsis.
The Grey is about how one meets the inevitability of death, with heavy emphasis on “inevitability.” It is more elegiac than exciting. The musical score is an early tip-off in this regard: Marc Streiteneld’s chords are mature and nostalgic, and bereft of hope. It doesn’t take much of a genius to intuit that the men in The Grey are fairly well screwed; whatever minor triumphs they achieve on their journey chalk up short against the infernal algebra of their situation: distance, temperature, and numbers.
Director Joe Carnahan falls to the contemporary vogue for action sequences that make no sense whatsoever, leaning heavily on zoomed in shaky cam wherever clear spatial blocking and choreography would have increased the thrills. But although The Grey de-evolves into useless visual frenzy every time there’s a wolf attack, the moments you get to watch in between, where the men process their lives and their fears, are quite a bit better than one expects. The M.O. is established right after the crash, where Ottway coaxes a dying man into the great beyond by urging him to gather his memories of the person he cares about most, a refrain that continues through much of the film. Notably, in nearly every instance, the men (only they have survived the crash) are thinking of daughters, girlfriends, wives, sisters back home. Liam, at the movie’s most stirring moment, thinks of his father, and a poem that his father wrote, but it is more usually anima that circles, strengthens, and supports the mens’ stories.
When you watch The Grey online free at one key moment, alone and desperate, Ottway shouts at god to do something, to provide some help or aid; answered appropriately with nothing but an empty sky, Neeson grunts “I’ll do it myself,” which – aside from establishing that he is now badass enough to reasonably circumvent the almighty – is a solid intellectual touchdown, to boot. When you watch the closing sequence, in which those broken airplane bottles finally make an appearance online, pays off the theme nicely, while leaving a Saturday night audience at the multiplex groaning for a more conventional climax. And no, staying till after the credits won’t help you either (though you should). You want the meaning of life? It’s only in the choice, never in the outcome.