Liam Neeson's new film lacks a much-advertised battle. It also lacks much of a point.
The person in charge of marketing Liam Neeson's new survival thriller should be fired. No one likes spoilers, but in this case, there's something to be said for the consumer's right to remain informed. The problem isn't with something that happens in the movie. Rather it's about that doesn't happen that just about everyone who wants to see this movie is expecting to happen.
So, here's the spoiler. Liam Neeson does not fight the wolf on screen. Repeat: Despite an advertising campaign that is pushing a climatic showdown between homo sapiens and Canis lupis as though it were the long lost capstone to the Rocky franchise, Liam Neeson does not fight the wolf.
Ostensibly a survivalist action thriller for the discerning man's man, The Grey is actually a much more contemplative affair than its trailer would have you believe. Within its two-hour duration, the film offers very lengthy ruminations on male bonding and masculinity, the cruelty of nature, and the search for meaning in tragedy. But does director Joe Carnahan (The A-Team, Smokin' Aces, Narc) have anything novel to say on these subjects?
The Grey stars Neeson as Ottway, a wilderness/security specialist stationed at an arctic oil drilling facility. When we meet him, Ottway is engulfed in depression after the loss of his wife (whether to death or irreconcilable differences is left ambiguous until the end). Having come close (barrel-in-the-mouth close) to suicide, Ottway is perpetually glum and seemingly without purpose until his the airplane carrying him and his co-workers back to civilization crashes in the arctic. Suddenly, he finds a new calling as leader and savior of the few remaining survivors.
The plane crash itself is the film's strongest sequence. Ambient sound is used to great effect as the viewer awaits the inevitable disaster (paranoid flyers will be especially unsettled by the use of the engine whine). When the plane finally crashes, the characters' violent insertion into the unforgiving wasteland is appropriately jarring. But from there, the spikes in adrenaline diminish in both their frequency and intensity as Carnahan relies less on action and more on lengthy stretches of dialogue to carry the film.
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But instead of offering actual profundity, the film delivers a series of platitudes about masculinity. The supporting characters remain undifferentiated, burly grunts, even after an incredibly hammy end sequence involving a montage of family photos (despite being a collection of ex-cons, alcoholics and "assholes," they all seem to have great relationships with their estranged children). No wonder, then, that even as the survivors are whittled down by a pack of wolves and other natural hazards, there's little reason to lament their passing.
The most interesting character plot in The Grey isn't really even intentional. Ottway's pain at the loss of his comrades to myriad natural hazards mirror very closely Liam Neeson's brush with random tragedy when his wife, Natasha Richardson, was killed in a freak skiing accident in 2009. But even reading The Grey as a coda for Neeson's grief (the wolves nipping at his heels are a pretty blunt metaphor for his own personal demons), there's little in the way of a resolution, or even exploration, of Ottway's pain. The balance between serene acceptance and defiance of the nature's arbitrary punishments are only briefly touched upon, and not in any meaningful way. When one survivor gives up and sits down to await his demise, his reasoning is more or less summed up with a "why bother" shrug. As for Ottway himself, he doesn't have anything more to say to the universe other than to scream "Fuck you" at the sky.