Unbearably tense and unexpectedly poignant, The Grey packs a wallop.
It’s a movie of many layers, this one. At first glance at its trailer or its poster, which emphasises a glowering Liam Neeson in don’t-mess-with-me mode, one might expect a gritty action flick in the vein of the actor’s recent hits, such as Taken.
The Grey quickly moves to subvert that impression, though, presenting itself as a man-against-nature melodrama that pits a handful of characters against the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash.
And it soon moves beyond even that, becoming a moving, thoughtful meditation on mortality, faith and the human spirit.
That’s pretty heady stuff for what initially appeared to be an action-adventure movie featuring Neeson versus a pack of wolves, and to his credit director and co-screenwriter Joe Carnahan brings a fair bit of psychological depth and emotional punch to the proceedings.
Of course, there are also times when he overextends himself, aiming for profundity but instead coming off like a would-be Hemingway or Jack London. (Still, there are worse role models.)
After the misfires of Carnahan’s last couple of films (the overblown Smokin’ Aces and the not-bad A-Team), this is a much more mature and much more satisfying effort.
The bare-bones plot has Neeson, a sharpshooter tasked with taking down the wild animals that occasionally menace the employees of an isolated Alaskan oil refinery, as one of the few survivors of the crash.
Tough as these men may be – and The Grey’s early scenes presents them as rough-edged ‘outlaw’ types – they’re no match for Mother Nature at her meanest, with the wintry conditions quickly taking a toll.
Even more threatening, though, is the wolf pack that is fearless about taking on the newcomers who have invaded their territory.
Carnahan quickly and effectively establishes a sense of unease, presenting the elements as unforgiving and the men as relatively powerless, and it gradually becomes clear that it’s not so much a case of how these people are going to survive but if they are.
And in scenes that are harrowing, shocking, riveting and powerful, The Grey shows their battle against nature.
The acting is strong across the board (Frank Grillo is a standout as the most belligerent of the bunch), with Neeson’s trademark combination of strength and sensitivity proving the perfect foundation for this harsh but heartfelt tale.