Neeson gives one of his best performances to date as John Ottway, a petroleum refinery worker in Alaska. It's a great role that allows Neeson to display both the bad-ass persona popular in past films Taken and The A-Team with his more sympathetic traits previously seen in Schindler's List and Michael Collins (and heard as Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia films). Ottway finds himself one of only seven survivors after the jet taking his crew home goes down in the frigid wilderness. The cold becomes the least of their worries, as the men soon become prey to a pack of vicious, possibly metaphysical/metaphorical wolves.
As the gradually dwindling group makes its way toward what they hope is civilization, each man's past is laid bare. Most of them are guilty of sin in how they have mistreated their wives, children and/or neighbors. The film begins with Ottway reflecting "I don't know why I did half the things I've done," and wondering whether he's been "damned" or "cursed" as the result of his misdeeds. Increasingly, the men's plight takes on the semblance of a communal judgment day. Some come to greater faith in God, a few have the chance to make their peace before the wolves or the elements take them, and Ottway downright puts God to the test (against scriptural advice) before all is said and done.
The Grey was directed by Joe Carnahan, veteran of the similar morality thriller Narc as well as the big-screen version of The A-Team, in which he previously teamed with Neeson. Carnahan co-adapted his latest from a short story, The Ghost Walker. While the script is rife with now standard, profanity-laden macho dialogue, it isn't without humor or -- more significantly -- compassion. Poetry and even prayer figure in the mix too, with one survivor saying to God in all humility: "Thank you for sparing us and helping us. Keep that up if you can."
A classic theological theme of light vs. darkness becomes gradually pronounced, and is dramatized in particular through Masanobu Takayanagi's superb cinematography that utilizes a variety of styles: verite, handheld, standard and spectacular widescreen nature shots. The film's production company and press rep were kind to let me watch The Grey via streaming download since I was unable to attend press screenings, but this is a film that truly should be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.
And then there are the fearsome wolves, brought to life through a combination of real animals, animatronics and CGI. Religious-minded viewers can debate whether the movie's lupine adversaries are demonic agents of Satan or are a justice-seeking force of God. It is intriguing that the wolves kill those unfortunate humans who cross their path but don't eat them, and that they maraud but also seem to police the men. I think it may have been more effective on Carnahan's part to show less of the wolves, a la Spielberg's handling of the infamous shark in Jaws, and leave their existence even more to the characters' and viewers' imaginations.
Different people will no doubt draw different conclusions from The Grey, depending on one's spiritual/religious background, physical endurance, emotional temperament, and admiration of or aversion to wolves. I look forward to hearing and reading viewers' reactions here and elsewhere. As far as filmmaking expertise goes, though, The Grey may ultimately emerge as one of this new year's better films.
Click here to access a special "film companion"/discussion guide prepared by Allied Faith & Family.
Reverend's Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.