I remember hearing Patton Oswalt talk once about how Denzel Washington deserved his Oscar for Training Day because he elevated the material at hand through his performance. The same argument could be made for Liam Neeson’s fantastic turn in The Grey (aka “Wolfpuncher” as some of my friends are fond of calling it.)
As a person that was very pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed director Joe Carnahan’s adaptation of The A-Team (also with Neeson, that time in the Hannibal Smith role), I can say that this film is not just very different for him, but that it is at another level from the rest of his oeuvre. However, that probably would not have been possible without Neeson’s heartrending performance as a man suffering through the loss of his wife. A performance informed by the real-life tragedy of the loss of his own wife.
In his mourning, Neesen’s character, referred to by his last name of Ottway, travels to Alaska to hunt wolves for and oil company and, job over and traveling overland back to “civilization” in a passenger plane, survives a crash that strands him and a half-dozen or so other employees in the Alaskan wilderness. With little time to wait for rescue, they begin to move south, fighting the elements and the famous wolves seen in the trailer. In a few quick flashbacks we see a little of what led him to be the man he is, moving from suicidal depression to screaming at a God he claims he does not believe in anymore.
The wolves, while certainly a heck of a lot better than the ones in the over-cooked effects fest The Day After Tomorrow, are pretty obvious CGI creations. Fortunately, this doesn’t take too much from the film as at a certain point, you should be pulled in by the drama between the characters and the way their interpersonal relationships in many ways offer parallels between the men and the pack hunters.
Once the cinematography tones down the overused cinema verite style that pervades so many films today, it also is starkly beautiful. The great white north is almost as pretty as it is deadly, making for quite a juxtaposition. Snowy plains give way to dense forests and mountain vistas, all of which hold unique dangers for the survivors.
The end result of all this is a film that offers an odd but endearing combination of sympathy towards the survivors without ever becoming overly sentimental. In some ways it is reminiscent of the type of adventure fiction perpetrated by London or L’Amour where the characters are not necessarily glamorized but are matter of fact. When Neesen talks about his father and the film threatens to veer into Terrance Malick territory, they are smart enough to pull out after verbalizing the theme through verse. The ending, while probably too ambiguous for many, was satisfying to me as it had become clear that the point of the film was a character arc, come full circle.
All in all, it makes for one of the better, if not the most bittersweet, movie experiences of the year.
(Four out of five stars)