‘The Grey’ (2012) review: ‘Once more into the fray’

Editor’s note: This review first was published Jan. 27, 2012.

‘The Grey’ a stunning, visceral experience

Liam Neeson is a beast. Whether he’s taking brutal, exacting revenge in “Taken” or struggling to regain his life in “Unknown,” Neeson is a lean and angry machine, compelling you to purchase a ticket to see his movies. Or else.

He continues this awesome streak with “The Grey,” a visceral stunner that will leave your jaw on the theater floor. (And no, it wasn’t because of Neeson’s savage right hook, though that doesn’t hurt.)

Breaking from the biopics for a breather, Neeson stars in “The Grey,” a stripped-down tale of elementary brutality in circumstances so stark, so desolate, you become lost in the white wash of the Alaskan snow. It’s blunt and unyielding, a perfect companion to its environment, a corner of the world best left to nature.

Ottaway (Neeson), a huntsman for a petroleum company, works in the Arctic oil fields sharpshooting wolves and other predatory creatures that might attack the other field workers. He’s a man of few words (and even less back story), and he fits in well with the lost souls surrounding him. We do know he once had a wife (shown in flashbacks, played by Anne Openshaw). We also know he’s far deeper, both emotionally and intelligently, than one would credit him.

The feelings he expresses, poignantly so while reading a letter to his wife (which serves as a voice-over narration), tantalizingly suggest a well of compassion in tandem with his ruthless survival instinct. He’s a beast, but Ottaway knows pain and love, which he exhibits time and time again.

All of this comes as a surprise, considering director Joe Carnahan’s previous endeavors, especially “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team.” Both extolled sadistic violence in a machismo-esque manner, rebelling against some unseen societal custom. (Which may be true, as most societies frown upon mass murder.) It’s bluster and pseudo-manhood at its worse.

“The Grey,” thankfully, takes a completely different tack. It drops the violence-for-violence’s-sake mentality, and instead seeks a grim idea of masculinity in the face of overwhelming odds.

Ottaway and a group of oil field workers survive a plane crash that leaves them in the midst of the Arctic tundra. The survivors, all men, all posses individual characteristics so well done they bypass caricature altogether and fall right into believability. You may see what one man’s disposition will lead to, but it feels natural rather than preordained.

Unsurprisingly, given the locale, some live, some die. To tell the methods would ruin the suspense. The group — Burke (Nonso Anozie), Henrick (Dallas Roberts), Talget (Dermot Mulroney) and Diaz (Frank Grillo) — is excellently portrayed by the actors.

The men, pursued by wolves, soon take on the same animal mentality. They hunt, protect each other and claim dominance. The descent into more base instincts may seem unnatural, but that’s only because it’s so hard to imagine ever being in such a situation where humans lack control. This is nature at its best: Unforgiving, it’s at turns lethal and life-saving. The group, always in primal danger, fights the environment, the wolves and even fate itself in an effort to survive. The results, both in-movie and cinematically, are breathtaking.

In short, “The Grey” is captivating. It’s a thriller with a touch of film noir, action and horror. And hell, there’s a bit of a love story in there. It’s a collage of real-life dynamics, even with the implausibilities. It’s so electrifying in its brutal display of mortality, you can’t help but feel alive.

Five stark stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

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