At the age of 59, Liam Neeson has become a bona fide action star, a go-to guy who audiences have willingly embraced in the well-worn genre. There’s a lived-in quality to his characters; these men live with regret over compromises made or the fickleness of fate. Neeson convincingly conveys the guilt and remorse they carry, bearing their emotional millstones with an admirable sense of grace and strength. Not only is he appealing in the way he solves his problems with his fists, but he suffers with dignity, displaying a sense of vulnerability and grief audiences can relate to. The sort of identification viewers have with Neeson and the catharsis they experience when he acts can’t be manufactured. It’s an organic bond that transcends the medium.
This has never been more obvious than in his latest feature, The Grey, a film with unexpected thematic and emotional heft. Far more than a survival tale, the screenplay by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers delves into existential matters. Its central characters must come to terms with mistakes in their past and attempt to become the men they were meant to be. Having survived a horrific plane crash, they attempt to extricate themselves from the Alaskan wilderness, all the while having a vicious wolf pack nipping at their heels.
Neeson is Ottway, a sharpshooter hired by a remote Alaskan oil refinery to keep the local wolf population at bay. While he doesn’t hesitate to take them down, he has the utmost respect for these creatures and comes to have more in common with them than with his co-workers, men he describes as “not fit for civilization.” Suicidal and haunted by the loss of his wife, Ottway finds himself onboard a transport back to civilization with a variety of these misfits, when their plane goes down. With only a handful of survivors, Ottway assumes the role of alpha male in the group, determined to lead them towards civilization, conscious that the hungry wolves are picking them off, one by one.
Whereas most films of this sort would be content to present the supporting characters as one-note ciphers, Carnahan takes the time to flesh these men out. Talget (a never better Dermot Mulroney) has been beaten down by life and lives only for the brief snatches of time he gets to spend with his daughter. Ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo) is bitter and angry because of what he feels are life’s bad breaks. Hendrik (Dallas Roberts) is a man who’s never lived up to his potential but longs for another chance. Our desire to see these men survive increases because of these narrative pauses. The emotional payoff that results helps elevate the film’s genre roots.
Equally impressive is Carnahan’s handling of the wolves, which are seen in the shadows and in quick glimpses so as not to reveal their CGI-origins. Much as Spielberg did in Jaws, this allows the director to effectively increase the tension surrounding this threat. The show-stopping plane crash will cure no one of their fear of flying.
Add to this the harshness of the film’s environment, captured in foreboding grays by Masanobu Takayanagi, and you have a story straight out of the world of Jack London, a tale of existential angst in which the characters, in searching for their purpose, come to question the existence of God. All of the film’s themes are embodied by Neeson, as is the notion that only in living without regret can a man be content. When Ottway realizes this it proves poignant and contributes to one of the more memorable endings seen in a genre film in recent years. We see a man who’s regained his strength by standing defiantly in the face of fate, willing to accept whatever outcome it may hold.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.