‘The Grey’ Review
A gritty and emotional survival thriller that’s a must-see.
If you’re going into ‘The Grey’ expecting a hardcore action movie, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re going into it expecting Liam Neeson punching wolves and the awesomeness that ensures, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s because ‘The Grey’ is much more than that. It’s a bleak and very effective survival dramatic thriller with excellent acting, beautiful cinematography, and deals with existential themes which makes it the standout film of the year so far.
The film follows a group of oil-rig workers after their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness, led by Ottoway (Liam Neeson). As the survivors cater to their wounds and struggle to survive with a lack of food and supplies, they realize that there’s a far greater threat out in the open – vicious wolves in the territory that see humans as hostile invaders and are looking to pick them off one by one.
Let me get something out there straight up. The trailers for ‘The Grey’ are misleading, but totally understandable why that is. From the trailers, ‘The Grey’ looks like a manly action movie where Liam Neeson is channeling his bad-ass character from ‘Taken’ but this time has wolves as opponents. The money-shot shows a now-iconic shot Neeson having bottle shards on his gloves and charging towards a wolf ready to punch its face. If this kind of marketing brings in a large audience to see the film, I think it’s justified. Because ‘The Grey’ is not an action movie but a deep drama that’s realistic and grounded in the struggles of survival.
You would be surprised to know how much of a human element the script actually contains, which actually is the highlight of the film. As soon as the film begins, we are introduced to Neeson’s character in a way that none of his most recent action movies have introduced him as – a depressed soul who’s on the verge of committing suicide with constant flashbacks to a tragic past involving his wife. These beautifully-filmed flashbacks appear throughout the film and humanize the character in the sense that he still hasn’t gotten over his past. And this particular angle has a lot to do with how the events of the film unfold and that’s the kind of character-driven approach that makes the film shine. Many scenes involve characters sitting around a bonfire and talking about life and death and the discussions are surprisingly thought-provoking and bring up a philosophical agenda of the film – how one deals with rising adversity. There’s a deeper theme here which would be a spoiler if mentioned, but suffice to say that ‘The Grey’ is a thinking man’s action film and it’s extremely surprising to see such depth in a film that could have easily been a throw-away action thriller.
Suspense is another thing that the film does really well, with the dangerous situations in the film escalating more and more. The wolves in the film are big bad creatures that aren’t just mindless attackers – they calculate their moves and strategically attack human beings when they’re at their weakest or alone. There’s an alpha male wolf that leads the pack with the other ones following, and this kind of thing makes the power play between the humans and the wolves interesting to watch. Almost every scene of the wolves attacking is engrossing and extremely suspenseful to watch with gritty camera moves and an unflinching R-rated portrayal of the attack. While there is much less action in the film than the trailer would have suggested, these attack sequences will make it your money’s worth thanks to the impact that they have. But as the film gets darker in content in the third act, it really does shine as characters not only begin to face an animal opponent but their inner fears as well as the perils of nature itself. There is a particular scene in the finale involving water that is not only hard-hitting but a surprisingly bleak and effective scene in a film of this sort. As for the ending itself, prepare to be surprised and though many casual audiences may not like the route it takes, it actually solidifies the theme of the movie brilliantly and takes it to Oscar-level in terms of quality.
Director Joe Carnahan is most known for his work on films like ‘Smokin Aces’ and ‘The A-Team’ which are a lot of fun but ultimately popcorn action movies but he really surprises with how adeptly he handles this film. The direction is gritty and rough and the cinematography in particular is highly polished. It’s probably one of the most beautiful looking films of its kinds that I’ve seen and it’s Alaskan setting especially lends to that. The plane crash sequence might just be the best plane crash sequence ever filmed, because of the restrained approach it takes and shows you the events unfolding from the point of view of one character rather than spectacle. It makes it grounded and extremely terrifying to watch. Character development is a mixed bag. For some characters, it’s surprisingly fleshed out and you actually begin to care about what happens to them thanks to the different outlooks the film gives them. But there are a few characters that come and go and never really make an impression on you as they should have. Pacing is an issue at times and the first act has some dull spots, but these are things that ultimately do not affect the quality of the movie so much thanks to the impact that it has on the viewer.
The acting is spot-on here and Liam Neeson gives an amazing performance not only in terms of physicality but how much emotional range he shows in the role. The film was actually shot under extremely harsh conditions and that really got out some nuanced performances from the actors. If this wasn’t a genre movie, I would honestly have expected some Oscar buzz for the actor especially for the brilliant yet restrained moments in the last few minutes of the film. But alas, that’s highly unlikely to happen. The rest of the actors are gritty and well-cast, making the events of the film all the more realistic which is extremely important for a film like this.
‘The Grey’ is a must-see survival thriller with enough depth to warrant a cinematic viewing. It’s a movie that could have been a generic man vs. beast thriller, but aspires to be much more and completely delivers on that front. While some action fans looking for more of Liam Neeson punching wolves might be a bit disappointed, people who like something more from their action movies are bound to be more than delighted with the quality present here.
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