What if you knew you were going to die today, due to circumstances far worse than you’d ever imagined? Would you rage at the heavens or scoff at the idea of God? Would you humble yourself in prayer and thank God for the time you had on the planet or resign yourself to passing peacefully without worrying whether there was an afterlife?
And when it came down to it — if you could face down the person or creature that was going to bring about your demise — would you steel yourself one last time to fight it out? Or would you just let death take you since it’s coming anyway?
These are the profound and unsettling questions at the core of the stunning new film “The Grey,” in which Liam Neeson puts a huge spin on the action-hero persona he suddenly adopted with the smash success of the 2009 film “Taken.” Having followed that film up with another hit action flick “Unknown,” which was sloppily frayed with loose plot threads, Neeson this time plays an Arctic oil-drill worker named Ottway who leads a group of five men against freezing winds, blinding blizzards and vicious wolf packs as they seek salvation after surviving a plane crash.
The irony here is that Ottway earlier wanted to die, pointing a shotgun at his throat before backing away from the precipice of despair. But he’s carrying a note from his wife and memories of happier times together, and so decides to wrestle with the concept of hope and whether he can find happiness without her.
Thrust among other hard-bitten men, who know each other only by their last names, if at all, and on a flight out of the wilderness back to homes in normal towns and cities, it appears he’s headed back to a sad but civilized existence. He wants nothing to do with the kind of men he works with — brutes who drink and brawl away their nights to make up for the harsh drudgery of their days. But once their plane goes down, he and four other survivors are utterly dependent on each other.
Thus begins a harrowing tale in which things start out bleak and at first seem to only grow bleaker. Co-writer/director Joe Carnahan serves it all up with incredibly crisp cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi and impeccable sound design that makes the movie feel like it has 3-D sound and the wolves are in the audience.
Yet, just as it seems the film might take the easy way out and offer one empty thrill after another, Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers — whose short story “Ghost Walker” the film is based upon — start exploring the most fundamental questions of life and death in between the bursts of action. One man in the group believes they survived the plane crash for a reason and is confident God has a plan, while another man mocks his faith. Ottway tries to be respectful but says he’s focused on what’s “real”: biting cold air, freezing water and snow all around them. And yet, they start to get signs of a bigger picture.
Aside from Neeson and veteran actor Dermot Mulroney, the rest of the cast is composed of mostly unknowns, which works to draw the audience into caring about them as believable people rather than feeling distanced by the fact they’re played by movie stars. As they wrestle with their consciences, will power and the universe in addition to wild animals and outrageous weather, it seems that every audience member will find plenty of questions about the gray areas surrounding life and death themselves.