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The Rare Cinematic Experience

The Grey

Starring Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, James Badge Dale

WOLF-FIGHTING MACHINE: Liam Neeson plays a badass wolf hunter in the worse of life’s unfortunate scenarios in “The Grey.” Courtesy photo

This is going to be one of those movies that some people love and some people loathe. “The Grey” might be the most polarizing film I’ve seen in ages. It’s a conversation-starter, that’s for sure. Cinephiles will say it’s a gripping thriller that dabbles in philosophy and forces the viewer to fill in the blanks. More mainstream movie fans may say it’s a bleak, barren, endlessly depressing yarn that never delivers on the promise of the premise. The great thing is, they’re both right.

In my line of work, I see a lot of movies. So I’m often very forgiving of films that manage to: a.) make me think and b.) deviate from the expected. “The Grey” is very much outside of the norm. The plot is remarkably simple. On the far side of nowhere Alaska is an oil company facility where lost souls labor. It’s a kind of frozen no-man’s land, made up of ex-cons and people with nowhere else to go. Among them is a lonely hunter, Ottway (Liam Neeson), who tries to forget the life and the wife he left behind. His job is to hunt the predators that lurk around the work site—namely ferocious wolves that silently stalk the facility perimeter.

He boards a plane with a hundred other employees to take off for the weekend. The Anchorage-bound flight never reaches its destination. Only a handful survive a horrific crash, leaving them stranded in the Canadian wilderness. The remaining survivors are injured, lost and in danger of succumbing to sub-zero temperatures. Sadly, those are the least of their worries. Once the sun sets, the crash site is visited by a pack of wolves. The scent of blood is in the air, and the survivors must band together to try and escape. This is no easy proposition. They are outnumbered, low on supplies and have no idea which way they are heading.

“The Grey” is a movie about struggling to survive, but it’s just as much a movie about accepting the inevitable. This isn’t a conventional survival story. It’s delightfully brutal and as unforgiving as the harsh territory they traverse. I can’t remember a movie that has channeled the raw fury of nature so convincingly. Director Joe Carnahan has crafted a wonderfully sadistic frozen landscape, equal parts beauty and pain. It’s a marvel to behold.

As frightening as the frozen wilderness is, it’s nothing compared to the wolf pack. Much of the time we only see them in bits and pieces. The reflection of light in their eyes. The outline of their gnashing teeth. “The Grey” does for wolves what “Jaws” did for sharks. Less is more. Often times they are nothing more than shadows and sounds.

Like every survivor story, there’s a constant guessing game in trying to figure out who’s the next to die. There’s an interesting dynamic as the film goes on. We get to know each of the characters in detail just before a wolf rips them apart and feasts on their intestines. The characterization feels almost wasted. It’s as if we get to know these people just so we feel an emotional impact as we watch them being digested by feral monsters. I doubt anyone would care if Ted, the random oil worker, was killed; however, when we realize Ted has a daughter, after he shares a quick story about a funny game they play, his transformation from man into fecal matter might tug at the proverbial heart strings.

I initially thought there would be a little more action and a lot less philosophy. There’s a lot of time devoted to talking about death—deep, meaningful discussions about the inevitability of their situation and the futility of their struggle. It’s marginally interesting, but part of me was hoping for less pontificating and more confrontation. It may be a realistic portrayal of stranded men being hunted by wolves in a frozen wasteland, but it’s not the most exciting. This is a movie. Simply put: less talky-talky. More wolf-fighting.

Still, I was engaged by “The Grey.” It’s not typical, and for that I give it credit. I mentioned the ending of the film, which is what most people will be discussing. Hence, spoiler alert! Reading ahead will ruin the film for those who have yet to see it.

At the film’s conclusion, we get Liam Neeson staring down the Alpha Male of the wolf pack—knife in one hand, broken bottles taped to the other. We’re mere seconds away from a long-awaited battle. Then, nothing. The film cuts to black. The audience I saw it with was audibly displeased. Moans, cries and jeers filled the theater. Part of me was impressed with the bold ending; another part wanted to see Liam Neeson fight a wolf. I’ve had a number of interesting conversations about the conclusion. Some love the choice; others seem to think it’s a cop out. I give credit to Joe Carnahan for creating a striking piece of cinema that gets people talking. What happens after the film’s conclusion is left to the viewer: Love it or hate it, it’s a rare cinematic experience.

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