According to Q, if you break down a narrative you will find at its heart seven essential conflicts: man against man, man against nature, man against himself, man against God, man against Society, man caught in the middle, and man and woman. Any one of these is more than enough grist for a storyteller’s mill, and has been the root for our most archetypal narratives.
Or you could go the other way and try to jam as much of that as you can into one plot, the way Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) has done in his modern Jack London-like adventure, The Grey.
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a master at going his own way and has done so for probably his entire life, as far as we can tell from the small snippets we get at it. A soldier, or possibly even a mercenary or terrorist (we’ll never know for sure), in his early life, in the loneliness of middle age he now finds himself a professional killer of a different stripe tasked with keeping wolves and other predators from attacking oil field workers in the frozen wasteland of northernmost Alaska. A place, in Ottway’s estimation, fit only for men who have discovered they can’t live in the civilized world. That’s an assumption which will be tested for him and a small group of oil workers who survive a plane crash and must make their way through the elements away from a pack of territorial wolves and back to safety.
On the surface, The Grey isn’t that much. After some brief introduction of Ottway, he and the roughnecks board a plane to head to civilization for the winter, and instead land on the side of a mountain somewhere. The rest of the film is a “Ten Little Indians” style reduction of cast members as Ottway attempts to lead the survivors out of the hunting radius of the wolves he has been routinely shooting.
Not that a complex plot is needed to produce good work. Execution can carry more weight than conception and Carnahan is as slick a craftsman as is working in Hollywood right now. Though there are no surprises in The Grey it unfolds exactly as you think it will Carnahan and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi have sculpted a beautiful film from the snow and ice of British Columbia. And the screenplay from Carnahan and Ian MackEnzie Jeffers (who wrote the short story it is based on) is thematically rich.
As Ottway and his fellows are picked off one by one they, and especially Ottway himself, are forced to face not only their own inner demons but also what they think about the world they live in and their place in it.
And at the heart of it all is Neeson, embodying in one way or another each of the major conflicts. Consumed with grief over his lost wife and pushed ever forward by the damage of a childhood under an abusive he may be struggling not to emulate, Neeson only lets what’s inside Ottway out in dribs and drabs in one of the best performances of his career. Suicidally depressed Ottway is never the less consumed with his own survival and very aware of the disparity between the two motives. It’s a difficult role to pull off, particularly inside a stunt heavy action film set almost entirely outdoors in the snow, but Neeson makes it look easy. If The Grey had come out in December he would be an easy Oscar front-runner for his work here and hopefully it will be well remembered this time next year.
Action junkies should get what they’re looking for as well though be warned, The Grey is at its heart a meditative film about a man examining his place in the world. He just happens to be doing it while jumping off cliffs and fighting wolves. But there is little of glory or satisfaction in it; more than likely you’ll walk away feeling cold.
But don’t let that scare you off Carnahan has made a potentially dully unsurprising action thriller into an interesting character study and a showcase for Neeson without giving up too much on the action front. Those two things don’t go together very well, very often. It’s worth checking out when they do.
Rating: 8 out of 10