There are qualities I seek more than others in works of art. Fearlessness is one of those. The pure will to make an uncompromising work of art that will require the viewer's complete heart and mind to make the most of. Something not bothered by the sales or the standards of a market. Or bothered by the intellectual standards of a so-called elite. THE GREY is one of those movies that bother about standing out, rather than fitting in. In fact, most Joe Carnahan's movies I had the pleasure to see were. THE A-TEAM captured the chaotic fun of the men's adventures era very well and added it quirky modern touch. I hadn't had such knee-slapping fun watching a movie in years. THE GREY is another very manly movie, but very different. It's a survival thriller that has little to do with the survival thrillers you already know. It goes beyond straightforward storytelling and regular filmmaking. It's a movie with balls, intellect and more important, respect for the intellect of its readers. Mr. Carnahan, consider yourself forgiven for SMOKIN' ACES.
Liam Neeson is back on the grind as Ottway, a hired sniper in a remote outpost somewhere very north of Anchorage. He kills wolves, so that oil drillers don't get mauled while destroying the land for profit. A grim occupation sure, but Ottway feels at peace over there. Locked away from everything that exists, along with his own kind. Taking the plane back home, something goes oh-so-wrong and they crash in the middle of nowhere at an inhuman weather. Being the "wolves guy" of the crew, Ottway leads the survivors away from the plane wreckage and into the forest. There are two goals to this. First, trying to find shelter. But there is also a pack of hungry, pissed off wolves after them, trying to get them to leave their territory. So Ottway and his small crew of men unfit for society, step into the great white north with the faint hope to see the civilization that ran away from again.
The man feat of Liam Neeson's action-hero-career-revival before THE GREY was this killer monologue he delivered in TAKEN, about exercising his very particular set of skills on some Albanian human trafficker's face. There is no such moments of immediate satisfaction in THE GREY, but it's because the movie as a whole it a lot better and a lot deeper. Ottway is deep into the throes of depression going into the wild like that, live so that others can live to see their families, so that wives and sons can be at peace with their fathers deaths, is what keeps him moving. But by doing that, he goes against an enemy greater than everything he could've imagined, mother nature herself. This is where this movie gets philosophical. Don't worry when I say that, by the way. Because it never gets self-indulgent or masturbatory. It just questions the belief that men have to face nature and questions the place of men in nature instead. It sees the bigger picture as most movies are too busy embracing their own action to bother with any though process.
Another cool thing about THE GREY is that it's the best cinematographic equivalent to a first person narration I've seen yet. Two people are responsible for that. Joe Carnahan and Liam Neeson. They have such a cohesive game, such a good understanding of each other's ideas that they could get away with very subtle and risky details. Every detail is seen through Ottway's eyes and its something you have to remember throughout the movie. There are some things that don't seem to make sense, but that do when you remember you're seeing the world through the eyes of a very depressed, but very courageous man. There is no evident signs of it, Joe Carnahan relies on you to understand the subtleties he slipped in. It's refreshing to see such confidence in the viewer in an action movie. Also, I cannot pass under silence that plane crash scene. It's the most brutal, gut-wrenching disaster scene I've seen in memory. It happens on a small scale, but it mixes Ottway's mental state, gory details and melancholia with great minutiae. It will scare the pants off you.
I haven't spoken about the supporting cast yet and it's not because they suck, but because there is so much to say about this movie. The guys have a strong screenplay to begin with, written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who wrote the short story the movie is based on to begin with. It seems like a winning combination to have the original story writer involved with the script and it's no exception with THE GREY. To me, the cornerstone scene is where Ottway and Diaz (Frank Grillo) are facing off. You can feel their masks falling off ans see the real humans behind. It's scene with kickass writing and Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo are facing off with such vulnerability and passion, it will remain to me forever scarred in my mind as one of cinema's greatest scenes. Watch for Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Joe Anderson also. Their characters aren't as interesting but they show a vibrant honesty that will reach out to all the uncomfortable places in you. Dermot Mulroney is particular, you won't recognize him.
Really, I'm trying to think about a place where THE GREY loses points and I can't. Maybe the animatronic wolves? Even then, I like it better than shitty CGI wolves. It's more of a financial limitation than anything else. There are very few clichés of the genre, so maybe there. But Carnahan does a good job at weaving around them. Even more, they play with your perception and plant false clichés. You will yell out CLICHÉ and find out by the very end of the movie it was just planted there to fuck with you. I love that a movie has the balls to do that. I'll tell you what I'll do with THE GREY. I will buy the DVD and find it a proud place in my collection. Every few months, I will watch it. Probably late at night, with a glass of bourbon and I will keep finding new things, new details about it that fascinate me. Please, watch that movie by any means. It's worth your precious time, dear reader. It's as strong and smart as action movies can get.