Yesterday we saw The Grey at the cinema. Before the film, I had high expectations; Liam Neeson, given his recent blockbusting successes with Taken and Unknown, surely has his pick of projects to choose from so his mere presence in the lead role, I thought, bode well for the quality of the movie. In addition, his two most recent films have shown how his imposing yet restrained and thoughtful screen presence can be harnessed to create modern action heroes, of the type who fight almost exclusively in short Krav Maga style bursts of fury and can drive a flat tired Mini Cooper through the eye of a needle, with considerable more depth, warmth and gravitas than anyone else playing those types of roles today.
The Grey, however, whilst certainly giving Neeson space to flex his action man chops, is a decidedly different type of action movie from Taken and Unknown. On reflection, the film actually succeeds at defying both the expectations of the action-movie formula suggested by the ‘Neeson versus the wolves’ advertising campaign, and the survivor movie formula suggested by the plane crashing in the wilderness element of the plot. If Taken is a wolf and Alive is a German Shepherd then The Grey is a surprisingly beautiful Husky: a more than capable cross breed of a film. The film is also beautifully shot, conveying both the awe-inspiring splendour of the Alaskan wilderness (although the film was shot mainly in Canada, I believe) and the sheer pitiless terror to be found in the same vistas.
Satisfying moments of action and peril then, are certainly present; the plot, the actors, the setting and, with a particularly unsettling alacrity, the wolves all deliver these. In one sequence, as characters climbed over a chasm on a hastily constructed improvised rope, I could almost sense everyone in the cinema holding their breath and inching forward in their seats because of the tension. The film was lifted in my opinion though by its philosophical pretensions and how well these were integrated into the whole. There was a deftness of touch which, whilst preventing the film from becoming maudlin or puncturing the tension, nudged questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life into the foreground.
Whilst not offering simple answers to such questions, the film, in my opinion, certainly comes down on the side of there being a real and significant importance to human actions, thoughts and emotions. The feeling which resonated with me powerfully afterwards was that these men mattered, that even whilst beaten and bruised unrecognisable; whilst dying with a nervous and suprised look on their filthy faces; whilst unconscious and insensible; whilst struggling weakly and pathetically in the jaws of a superior predator or, most certainly, whilst standing their ground in defiance and clinging to the smallest of hopes: their actions in the here and now, to paraphrase another film, echoed in eternity. The importance of maintaining respect for the dead is also a prominent theme, never more so than when Neeson’s character rages, with disregard for his own safety, at a wolf defiling the exposed body of a dead airline stewardess.
The film is clear too about the type of people most likely to be making the most pleasing echoes in the eternal caverns outside this mortal plane; all the characters are described in the sonorous opening monologue as ‘men not fit for mankind’ but by the end of the movie only one, the willful outsider who did not show an appreciation for love in either his present or his past, is portrayed as facing death with hopeless uncertainty.
As a final thought, the poem recited by Neeson’s character worked extremely well thematically and reminded me of the final verse of Longfellow’s ‘A Psalm of Life’:
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.
What was the last movie you saw with scary wolves in it that also imparted an appreciation of poetry and had you gripping the arms of the cinema chair?
Verdict: Get it seen.