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MOVIE REVIEW

The Grey

Neeson’s at a loss, once again, in ‘The Grey’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 27, 2012
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The titles of Liam Neeson’s recent solo vehicles - “Taken,’’ “Unknown,’’ and now “The Grey’’ - have been as economical as his acting in them. They’re variations on the same idea. He’s on his own. He wants back what has been stolen from him: respectively, his daughter, his identity, his marriage. The last one should explain what we and Neeson are up against in “The Grey.’’ It’s the most philosophical of these movies. It’s also the most ambiguous.

Neeson is John Ottway, a sharpshooter doing security work at an Alaskan oil refinery. He’s broken up about his wife (Anne Openshaw), who, in sunny flashbacks, lies beside him in bed. (Is she the late Mrs. Ottway? The former? Oh, the greyness of it all!) Whatever’s happened has turned him suicidal with heartsickness. We’ve known this man 10 minutes and already he’s putting his mouth around the barrel of a rifle. He manages to push on, boarding a flight from the refinery, along with some of the crew, to some place presumably happier. They never make it. The plane crashes. Seven men survive only to be gradually picked off by freezing cold and wolves, which, we’re told, are the only animals that seek revenge.

It’s cheap the way “The Grey’’ wants to be both a Liam Neeson “Quit Taking My Stuff’’ movie and an existential thriller about survival. We’ve come, in vain, to see him danse-macabre with wolves, and the film’s director, Joe Carnahan, provides the occasional horror-film sneak attack. He also manages to create one of the movies’ more nightmarish plane crashes and conclude with just the sort of ludicrous finale that paying customers who’ve seen the ads might assume they would be getting a whole film of. It’s been 15 years since we fell for a similar trick when “The Edge’’ invited us to watch Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin go nose to nose with a bear. What we got was alpha-male opera from David Mamet.

It turns out that the most interesting scenes in “The Grey’’ involve men - namely Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, and Dallas Roberts - just sitting around missing their kids, being sad that they have no idea where they are and that there are no women around to have sex with. These moments are interesting because they are human, and that’s not a quality I immediately associate with the director of “Narc,’’ “Smokin’ Aces,’’ and “The A-Team.’’

All this talking is a turning point, which occurs around the time they are all forced to leap off a cliff. Carnahan wrote this movie with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, and that’s a decent metaphor. I’m afraid the transition doesn’t produce a better movie necessarily, just a more honest one. Of course, honesty is all we get with Liam Neeson. “Taken’’ and “Unknown’’ were rigged to bring him to a boiling point. The limited fun in each was in tracing the path of a sparking fuse as it approaches the bomb.

“The Grey’’ doesn’t require as much of Neeson’s blood pressure or his stunt double. He’s just aching and spiritually alone, which, alas, might be too much honesty. It’s been three years since his wife, Natasha Richardson, was killed in a skiing accident. Watching him fight in these movies for a center, for who he is without the woman he no longer has can be a trial for us, too. Closure is a rare thing, yet Neeson keeps asking us to come and behold him attempt to achieve it. This very good career has entered a grim phase: post-traumatic Sisyphus.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

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THE GREY Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Written by: Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on his story “Ghost Walkers””

Starring: Liam Neeson,

Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, and Dermot Mulroney

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 117 minutes

Rated: R (language, violence, and disturbing content, including bloody images resulting from a plane crash and animatronic wolves)

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