When I had cable, one of my guilty pleasures was a show called “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” From the producer of the 2003 survival doc Touching the Void, each episode featured reenactments of real people battling sharks, cold, heat, avalanches and other mighty natural forces. The point wasn’t finding out who survived but watching people grapple with the realization that they might not. Who would be paralyzed by the imminence of death? Who would fight to the end?
Moviegoers who buy tickets for The Grey anticipating an action-fest in which Liam Neeson takes on Mother Nature with his fists may be dismayed to find that Joe Carnahan’s thriller plays more like an episode of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” While it has its animal attacks and B-movie contrivances, The Grey isn’t Taken with wolves. It’s really about Liam Neeson versus mortality, and the actor’s quietly forceful performance as a man enduring beyond reason and hope buoys it above the usual action flick.
Actually, Neeson’s character, a sharpshooter named Ottway, is well beyond hope when we meet him. Unspecified events have severed him from the woman he loves, and the film practically opens with him sticking a gun in his mouth. In a voiceover that approaches Twilight levels of purpleness, Ottway tells us he works at a desolate Alaskan oil refinery because he prefers to mingle with “men unfit for the company of mankind... I move like I imagine the damned do, cursed,” he continues.
So far, so ridiculous. But just when The Grey is showing all the signs of a he-man camp classic in the making, Carnahan puts Neeson and some of his fellow damned souls in a genuinely harrowing plane crash. He follows that with a wrenching death scene in which Ottway demonstrates his empathy. From there to the end, The Grey lurches between silly stock plotting — danger always, predictably, appears when the men think they’re safe — and surprisingly raw drama.
The danger takes the primary form of a wolf pack preying on the crash’s seven survivors, and the secondary form of one angry nihilist (Frank Grillo) trying to replace Ottway as the human pack’s alpha. Fans of wolves won’t be happy with their portrayal here, nor will fans of coherent action cinema be happy with the blurry mush Carnahan puts on screen. But, while the fight scenes in The Grey are as wasted as those in Carnahan’s The A-Team, they’re a lot shorter. When he holds the camera still on the actors’ faces or the bleak, stunning landscape (it’s actually British Columbia), things get real.
If you want to be pretentious about it, wilderness survival stories are just hyped-up dramatizations of things we all face sooner or later. Viewed in that light, the last shot of The Grey is appropriate — necessary, even. Because its trailer raises certain expectations, however, I feel duty bound to identify this as the first multiplex sighting of what my colleague Rick Kisonak calls the “art-house affectation of the no-ending ending.”
That’s right: Jarring cuts to black just when “things were getting good” have gone mainstream. The Grey refuses to gratify the audience almost as flatly as Martha Marcy May Marlene — and a postcredits scene doesn’t offer much more closure.
The film is something of a bait-and-switch, owing its $20 million weekend haul to the graying star’s primal appeal to dads across America. Still, if watching Neeson punch Euro-trash thugs is deeply satisfying to some, watching him slug existential despair works for me. There’s no denying that, in a situation where you shouldn’t be alive, he’s the guy you’d want around.