I can’t have been the only person who was about to give up on Liam Neeson. Clash of the Titans? The Next Three Days? BATTLESHIP? It’s seven years since Batman Begins, and the best work he’s done since then is as the voice of a lion who thinks he’s Jesus. Thankfully, however, The Grey represents a dramatic return to form for the man whose most recent bread and butter has been identical man-runs-with-gun films like Taken and Unknown. Would ‘Hemingwayesque’ be pretentious? Probably. But it’s true as well.
Marooned at a desolate oil rig in Alaska, Ottway (Neeson) is just another lost soul toiling at the end of the earth. Taciturn and brooding, he patrols the encampment; unnoticed by many of the coarse, hard-drinking men with whom he lives, but frequently saving their lives as he shoots the huge wolves which venture into their outpost. Ottway has lost his purpose in life, and when – if – he leaves the rig he has nobody to go home to. Boarding a tiny, rickety plane to Anchorage with a few dozen other workers going on leave, Ottway rereads and discards the umpteenth letter he’s written to his wife, who is absent in unexplained circumstances. It’s nearly the last thing he ever does.
Whilst struggling to pass through an ice storm, the plane comes down and Ottway regains consciousness to find he is one of only a handful of survivors. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re the only living things on their inhospitable patch of tundra – whilst looking for survivors, Ottway comes across an air stewardess being eaten by a wolf. Later that night one of the seven remaining men is eviscerated whilst on guard, and Ottway’s study of wolf behaviour leads him to suspect that his dwindling band is encroaching on the pack’s territory. Their only hope is to leave the wreckage of the plane and head south… and hope they catch up with civilisation before nature catches up with them.
You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned any characters other than Liam Neeson’s. It’s not an accident – although the other six (then five, then four…) men joining Ottway in his heroic trek are an important part of the story, that part is ‘those other guys who aren’t Ottway’. This is Liam Neeson versus Alaska in all its primal, alien glory, and the other human characters are no more significant in the overall, elemental struggle between Earth and Irishman than are the wolves. Which is to say that they’re quite frequently significant in a visceral, oh-look-he’s-just-died way, but they’re never going to have an effect on the endgame.
Neeson really is startlingly good, bringing a gruff humanity to a character who could easily have been another of his emotionless ciphers. Ottway’s past is sparingly dipped into but the few moments we see reverberate through the film, shaping his actions in ways the audience understands but Ottway’s fellow travellers cannot hope to. Although said companions are underused, some of them are very watchable. Frank Grillo’s Diaz, an ornery troublemaker whose tussles with Ottway cleverly mirror disputes with the wolf pack’s Alpha, is particularly memorable – and his final scene, about which I propose to say nothing, is one of the most simple and affecting sequences I’ve ever seen in a thriller. In a way it’s a shame that the other characters don’t get more chance to develop – they all have plenty of screen-time, but apart from an obligatory ‘sit round the campfire and divulge an illuminating secret’ scene they’re all relatively forgettable. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), a significant player in the third act of the film, about whom I can remember literally nothing to flesh out this sentence, is so unmemorable that I briefly thought he was a new addition to the team when the cast had finally thinned out so much that I couldn’t miss him.
Ultimately, however, you can’t begrudge Joe Carnahan’s decision to focus on Ottway and his one-man battle against the barren Arctic wastes. This is a truly impressive thriller, knowing when to pull its overtly thriller-themed punches (I doubt the wolves have more than five or six minutes’ continuous screentime in the whole film) but unafraid to deliver the full clout of its emotional and atmospheric weight when necessary. I left the cinema shivering for more reasons than the ever-present snow.