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From the outset, there is nothing to suggest that The Grey, the latest directorial offering from “Smokin’” Joe Carnahan, will be anything more than the type of perfunctory, logic-bothering Mittel European action farrago that has in recent years become the stock-in-trade for its grizzled star, Liam Neeson. Yet, one suspects that Carnahan and co-scribe Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (writer of the short story, ‘Ghost Walker’, upon which this is based) were dreaming big with this one.
The pair’s bald existential ambitions ally The Grey to films like John Hilcoat’s The Road and, for those feeling very, very generous, even Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The problem is that their goal is to deliver an impassioned exploration on the futile nature of human existence, but still find time for Neeson to punch blood-thirsty timber wolves in the face. Which he does. Regularly.
Set initially in a hellish Alaskan oil station, we meet Neeson’s character at the point where he’s depressed to the point of suicide. Along with some of his swarthy compadres – a cosily diverse mix of classes and ethnicities – he boards a doomed flight to Anchorage which plummets on to the barren Alaskan ice fields. As soon as the survivors (or is that the writers?) concur that no one will ever come out to rescue them, they soon realise that they’ve landed near a den of wolves. And wolves, it transpires, don’t like people loitering on their property.
The ensuing snowbound survival horror takes in a standard mix of homespun camaraderie, petty squabbling and dimestore metaphysical inquiry as Neeson – who’s bluntly presented as some kind of omnipotent Christ figure in a cagoule – calls bullshit on this whole godless universe thing. Yet The Grey just doesn’t work, it’s central failing is having its various uninteresting supporting players offer us cod Nietzschian, Oscar-clip soliloquies so as we might bask in their pained, Earthly woes. All the while, the purportedly naffed-off wolves are just conveniently hanging about in the brush and filing their claws.
Carnahan is capable of a directorial flourish when he puts his mind to it, and the terse, hand-held style he employs for the action sequences recall his finest hour: the thrilling chase sequence from the opening of his 2002 policer, Narc. It’s a shame that this aesthetic freedom has led also to indulgence, lingering as he does over frozen human entrails and giving us technically bold albeit thoroughly unpleasant first-person views of falling out of a tree and being at the centre of a plane wreck.
The film’s most impressive stretches arrive during the moments of calm, such as when one survivor decides that he hasn’t got the energy to preserve his life any longer. A single shot which is held for a few beats of this solitary man framed against a breathtaking skyline is easily the film’s most moving moment.
Intellectually, The Grey also comes up short. Its view of death as akin to a vapour seeping from your body is at best clichéd and at worst plain childish. The wolves themselves barely get a look in, their presence sign-posted by the bombastic caterwaul of a BBC effects tape being looped to its tensile limit.
Somehow, it’s hard not to view The Grey as either schlock with delusions of grandeur, or a bleak art-house parable masquerading as popcorn hokum. Taken on either level, it never quite strikes a satisfying balance.