What’s the hardiest breed of entertainment consumers? Moviegoers in January. Ignoring the snootier Oscar fare, we patronize winter genre films, the oversize spawn of antique B pictures. We get an education too, becoming experts in the fine points of exorcism (The Devil Inside), smuggling (Contraband) and vampire-Lycan enmity (Underworld Awakening). January movies are like homework for misfits. Further instruction awaits the viewers of The Grey, a suitably bleak-midwinter action movie whose syllabus includes the feeding habits of Alaskan wolves and the odd career choices of Liam Neeson.
In his late fifties, after playing Oskar Schindler, Michael Collins, Alfred Kinsey, Jean Valjean, Qui-Gon Jinn and Aslan the deitific Narnia lion, this imposing slab of Irish manhood turned himself into a wintertime action hero in Taken and Unknown. In The Grey, his boldest frostbite statement yet, Neeson plays Ottway, a professional wolf-hunter on an Alaskan oilrig. When the plane carrying him and some other gruff souls crashes, and the seven survivors are menaced by ferocious timber wolves, Ottway declares himself the alpha male of the human pack and tries leading them to safety through the punishing snow. No question that Ottway is Neeson, declaring himself king of the cold-weather movies. It’s a title he’s welcome to — and who’d dare fight him for it?
Director Joe Carnahan, who worked with Neeson on The A-Team and shares screenplay credit here with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, the author of the original story, gets a few things right. Start with the plane trip — as tense a movie-aviation thrill ride since William Shatner saw gremlins on thee wing in the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone — and the subsequent crash. After many men perish, Ottway gently talks another victim, nearing death, into accepting his fate. “It’ll slide over you, it’ll feel nice and warm,” he whispers. “Who do you love?… Let her take you then.” In a movie full of dialogue that strains for ultimate meaning, this is the one that gets there.
The wolves’ first furtive appearances carry suspense and dread: in the blackness of night, a pair of yellow eyes blinks on; then, quickly, six other pairs — silent, watchful killers massing to attack. At other times they make their presence known as soundtrack specters (basso-profundo growls and coloratura howls) or through visual talismans (a victim’s blood filling a pawprint in the snow). The location shooting, in farthest British Columbia, conveys the puny helplessness of the men hiding in their aircraft rubble. If only they were a few provinces eastward, Neeson could channel Samuel L. Jackson and thunder, “I’ve had it with these Manitoba wolves near this Manitoba plane!”
(MORE: See Richard Schickel’s review of Snakes on a Plane)
Mauled by one of the lupine intruders, Ottway grins bitterly and says, “Maybe I’ll turn into a wolf man.” But The Grey isn’t a fanciful monster movie, unless the men are the monsters. “You’re not the animals!” the surliest of the survivors yells at the wolves, pounding home the film’s central metaphor. “We’re the animals!” They are also the intruders on the wolves’ home turf, foreign occupiers (like the Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan) faced with an indigenous lupine insurgency. Unable to communicate with their oilrig colleagues, the men desperately need some kind of deus ex machine; but the helicopter carrying a rifle-totin’, wolf-shootin’ Sarah Palin never arrives. The dwindling cohort must confront nature, and their own fears, with the ordinary reserves of muscle and ingenuity.
One ghost that lingers at the corners of this death-in-the-snow film is the late actress Natasha Richardson, Neeson’s wife, who died three years ago, at 45, two days after what was originally thought to be a minor skiing accident in Quebec. Curiously, in Neeson’s big projects of the last few years, he has played a man robbed of the woman he loves. Ottway’s separation from his own beloved has driven him close to suicide, and he remains tantalized by visions of his faraway sweetheart, whispering pillow talk in his fever dreams. Any actor may have a dozen reasons for making or not making certain films, and it may be sheer, cruel coincidence that led him to Taken, Unknown and The Grey. The Natasha connection may not trouble Neeson, but it should haunt many viewers.
(MORE: Corliss’s tribute to Natasha Richardson)
If it ran about 80 mins., The Grey could be a smartish man-against-the-elements thriller. Unfortunately it ambles in at nearly two hours, an arid expanse padded with sad stabs at characterization: the noble black man (Nonso Anozie), the book lover (Dermot Mulroney, unrecognizable behind Witness Protection spectacles) and the mouthy ex-con (Frank Grillo), whose endless grousing led one member of the preview audience to shout, “Hey, wolves—kill him.” Two-thirds of the way unto the movie, when just four men are left and the noose should be tightening, they engage in an extended conversations that would allow you not just a concession-stand break but time to leave the theater, drive home, microwave some popcorn and drive back without missing a relevantly scary thing.
True to its grim prospectus, The Grey dwells in haunted machismo to the very end. Seriously: you must sit through all of the end credits before learning whether man or beast wins the climactic battle. But the audience should be able to endure that final ordeal. After all, they’re January moviegoers.
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