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Review

Neeson stars in emotionally complex thriller

Michael Brun

February 10, 2012

I am all about watching movie previews and trailers, which means that I generally go into a movie with at least an idea of what to expect. Most of the time my expectations are met, but every so often, a movie will be drastically different than how it looks in the previews. “The Grey” is one of those movies. But instead of feeling tricked by false advertising, I was pleasantly surprised at every turn. What looked like a gimmicky survival tale about a man punching wolves turned out to be one of the most visceral and emotionally complex thrillers in years.

I will be honest, the prospect of Liam Neeson going hand-to-hand against a giant wolf had me sold from the outset. But on this level, “The Grey” is actually disappointing. What the previews fail to show is how deep and philosophical the plot can get. Man against wolf is certainly a major part of it, but it is just as much a movie about faith in the divine—specifically holding on to that faith in the face of certain doom.

The movie stars Neeson as Ottway, a grizzled hunter paid to shoot wild beasts at a remote oil drilling facility in Alaska. As a wolf bounds across the frozen landscape toward two unsuspecting oil workers in the opening sequence, it is Ottway’s keen shot that fells the animal before it can do any harm. He approaches the wolf, holding a hand to its chest until it draws its last breath with a haunting sigh. There is clearly more to Ottway than is revealed by his stoic demeanor.

Ottway and nearly a dozen oil workers are soon boarding a plane that will take them home to their wives and children. They have to hurry, of course, because a dangerous blizzard is barreling down on them. You can probably guess where this is going—and you would be right. The plane crashes somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. With the temperature dropping quick, a handful of survivors band together to endure the brutal elements. But snow and wind are not the only danger they face. The unlucky group has crashed in the middle of the hunting ground for a pack of vicious wolves.

The thing I like most about “The Grey” is how well it works with an understated, less-is-more presentation. With its small cast, minimal effects shots and barren backdrop, the production feels restrained—and is a better movie for it. At a time when computer effects are opening up the limits to a writer’s imagination, it is refreshing to see a movie holding back visually and leaving something to the imagination.

Case in point, the plane crash in the first act. Plane crashes are nothing new—there have been at least a dozen movies and television shows featuring them in the past decade alone. That said, the plane crash in “The Grey,” despite showing very little of the actual descent, is the most intense and downright frightening crash sequence I have ever seen. All the more amazing, that intensity was achieved entirely through careful editing, phenomenal sound effects and implying shots rather than showing them.

It cannot be overstated how powerful the sound effects are in this movie. Cracking bones, howling wolves, crunching snow, oozing blood and snarling maws are just a taste of the audio perfection that is “The Grey.”

There are few faults to find in this near-perfect thriller, save perhaps for the final act—which seems to drag on 15 minutes too long. With a run-time of nearly two hours, I think it could have used a couple more passes through the editing room. Near the end of the movie, the remaining characters find themselves pushed against the edge of a cliff with nowhere to go but down. Appropriately the scene reflects the overall tone of the movie at that point. But instead of wrapping things up, it hobbles along for another 30 minutes. These scenes are filled mostly with philosophical musings on life, fate and faith-and it is mostly good stuff; it just lacks the drive and focus so prominent in the rest of the movie.

Thankfully “The Grey” turns it around in the last scene. The ending will likely divide audiences, but I cannot think of a better way for this story to end. It brings the movie to a close on such a high note that I left the theater with a supercharged rush of adrenaline. See this movie.

Michael Brun is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.