Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson, Frank Grillo
Rating: R, for violence and disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language
Runtime: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Bottom line: A gripping thriller with a brain
"The Grey" is one of the most intense movies to come along in a while. Writer/director Joe Carnahan's movie is half survival tale, half horror film and thoroughly riveting.
It begins with an opening sequence that reveals the protagonist, a man named Ottway (Liam Neeson) who makes his living protecting arctic pipeline workers from bloodthirsty wolves, is suicidal. He harbors a deep pain and sense of hopelessness caused by something that happened to or with his wife. Ottway's back story isn't fully revealed until late in the film.
What we do know is that Ottway's life consists of nothing more than lurking a sniper's distance from the workers then shooting wolves on the attack. Each kill seems to sink him deeper into despair.
This sequence culminates with Ottway kneeling in the snow one night, the barrel of his rifle in his mouth, poised to pull the trigger. The movie is made so effectively that it seems like Ottway might just kill himself five minutes into the film, even though we know that would make no sense.
Then he hears the howl of a wolf and decides to live, at least for another day.
This sets up the central theme of the movie: man's will to live. Ottway, like all of us, needs a purpose. The most engaging part of the story is that this character Ottway has the slimmest of reasons to go on living, yet he does. It is a weighty scenario for an action movie.
Ottway's will to live continues to be tested throughout the film.
He and two dozen or so pipeline workers board a plane in particularly treacherous weather conditions, even by arctic standards.
The plane promptly crashes in a stunningly executed scene. Carnahan puts us right in the seat with Ottway as he and his fellow passengers come within an inch of death. And once again, it is done so well it is easy to believe that this might be the end for Ottway.
Being a January release, "The Grey" is destined to be forgotten by the end of the year. But I guarantee you that the plane crash sequence will remain one of the most effective scenes of any 2012 movie.
Ottway and six other crew members survive the crash and must find a way to stay alive in the middle of the tundra. It's a survival story reminiscent of "Alive," although there is thankfully no cannibalism here. The men's lives are reduced to the search for warmth, food and water.
But oh wait, there are huge, calculating, murderous wolves, too.
"The Grey" blends in horror film elements as a pack of wolves methodically begins hunting Ottway and his fellow crash survivors. They lurk in the darkness and strike unexpectedly, just like classic movie monsters.
So "The Grey" is a strange mix of genres, a sort of hybrid between "Into the Wild" and "The Thing." Certain scenes are unabashedly exploitative and meant to make us jump, squirm or dig our fingernails into the armrest. Or all of the above.
However, Carnahan never loses sight of his central question. What makes a man persevere despite all logic, even when the circumstances seem beyond human capacity to overcome them?
The men in the crew provide a handful of different answers, but that question is most interesting when it comes to Ottway, who seems to have nothing left to live for. So why would a man refuse to give up, to brave nature's most ferocious elements, especially when we have already seen him ready to kill himself?
This complex question, along with one incredibly well-made scene after another, elevate "The Grey" above the usual January action fare.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.