The urge to stay alive is a peculiar one. Thousands of people kill themselves every day and millions more want to kill themselves to varying degrees of sincerity when the line at the grocery store moves too slow or when a former love announces on Facebook that they’re getting married to a drug dealer on April 20th. Hypothetical? Yes. Philosophical? Indeed. Depressing? You bet your meaty ass. Surviving is not enough; one needs a reason to live. Liam Neeson's latest romp in a string of ultra-masculine, brutal, inwardly driven films, is “The Grey” and never has a search for purpose come up so empty.
Neeson, to his credit, rages gravitas and does his best to teach the others how to act and survive. But with so few resources and so many survival-movie cliches, any hope to improve either condition is kept at a minimal. Really, I think the film’s virtues start and end with Neeson being a vastly improved action hero over the Brickface Brothers: Sam Worthington and Channing Tatum.
I suppose some comparisons can be drawn between “The Grey” and “Deliverance,” but few work to the advantage of the former. For instance, while both wolves and hillbillies hunt the protagonists, the wolves do not rape anybody, preferring instead to just mercifully kill stragglers and the wounded. In between the attacks, the men of “The Grey” huddle around a couple of campfires and try their damnedest to make the audience give two farts by promising that off-screen female characters like them.
In what will remain one of this year’s worst red herrings, Liam Neeson tells the others/audience that simply running from the wolves would be suicidal and so they must improvise weaponry and hunt the wolves as they are being hunted. With 7 wolves vs. 7 of my friends, God knows I’d take my chances fighting over running (assuming one of my friends is Neeson). As already regretted, this battle does not come to pass and we are all subjected to an individual Armageddon. In short, Liam Neeson punches no wolves and PETA’s condemnation of the film is infuriatingly unfounded.
With less reason to live than any other character, it seems paradoxical that the Neeson character would so much as keep breathing after the first inconvenience, but such a paradox is the human condition. We want control. If we can’t have control in our life, we want it with our death. No force of nature, human error or gang-banger wolves are going to tell us to die. We decide went to go out and being told otherwise is the last, if not only, reason to live. This isn’t a movie about redemption or survival; it’s a movie about final acceptance.
"I don't even want to survive a whole movie anymore."
And so at its core, “The Grey” is a deeply angry and spiteful movie. Most of the characters work on an oil refinery, indirectly draining the Earth of beauty, stability and resources. Neeson, though, employs a more direct route: professionally executing wolves. These characters openly do nothing to improve the planet they live on and when the planet seeks a reckoning, they retaliate with even more desecration. It seems unfortunate that humans are on Earth at all, as we’d clearly be better fit to deal with the empty landscape of Mars—atmosphere aside.
Fortunately, the film refrains from diving into extended monologues on the human spirit or other Hollywood gargle but no less than five peaceful flashbacks to “a simpler time” eventually become refreshingly redundant. The terrain itself is a knee-deep hindrance rather than the full-fledged antagonist of the superior, 2010 film, “The Way Back.” Equally, the Alaskan forest seems uniform and even repetitive when juxtaposed with the North Asian taiga. Again unlike “The Way Back,” the characters do not have enough time to starve and have shaky (at best) reason to travel in their chosen direction. Disorientation is never admitted, though, so only the astute observer will understand just how meandering, aimless and doomed the snow bound trek really is.
Real insight is abandoned, like so many backpacks apparently filled with irrelevant supplies. That Neeson and the others abandon a perfectly visible crash site in favor of slugging through miles of ill-prepared, discombobulating situations is the first of many leaps of faith in an otherwise atheistic film. Before the halfway point, it becomes all too clear that the group cannot accomplish the difficult and that they aren’t so much fighting to survive as they are fighting to be miserable just a little bit longer. There is no guilt, regret, blame, democracy, vengeance or hope. There is just being alive. Rarely has life been so demoralizing.
There’s a quote in the 1977 rom-com, “Annie Hall” that goes: “Well, that's essentially how I feel about life: full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.” And it’s to my own disappointment that Woody Allen was not among the cast in “The Grey.”
The master of stoicism, Liam Neeson guides us to a resolution that is acceptable but hardly worth running to. Like the first character to die on-screen, we must be coaxed into accepting the inevitable. It seems impossible that we paid ten dollars to reach this point, but Neeson drills us with his pair of ol’ icy blues to the point that fighting his reassurances is more exhausting than drifting off with thoughts of a better time.