Hey, ‘The Grey’ is okay

Liam Neeson's The Grey has a compelling ending

MANILA, Philippines – Actor Liam Neeson has had his share of critical beating lately. Some have lamented how he has come down from the pedestal of portraying Oskar Schindler, Michael Collins and Alfred Kinsey to indulge, despite his relatively advanced age of 59, in action flicks with either thinly realized characters or ludicrous, if not downright insulting, plots, or both. (Cases in point: Taken, Unknown, The A-Team.)

The world, it seems, has forgotten that the man had done action work before, such as for Clint Eastwood’s The Dead Pool and the comic book-style caper Darkman. (May he and Darkman director Sam Raimi re-collaborate someday.)

Neeson, however, is blessed with a presence that, while capable of evincing onscreen vulnerability, renders him immune to utter disrespect. As a result, male viewers have tended to see themselves in him, thinking they would do the same thing in such extreme situations.

This must be why men, and women, have flocked to Neeson’s latest starrer, The Grey. Co-scripted and helmed by A-Team director Joe Carnahan from the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, The Grey tells of a small group of Alaskan oil rig workers who survive a plane crash in a snowy middle of nowhere and try to stay alive despite the biting cold, their increasing hunger and a pack of ever hungry gray wolves. (The basic equation at work: Alive + zombie movies = The Grey, except the “zombies” here are four-legged, living mammals.)

The one thing immediately noticeable about The Grey, apart from the below-zero surroundings, are the tight shots, frontal or side view, of the characters, especially Neeson’s. As lensed by Masanobu Takayanagi, this is presumably Carnahan’s way of not just heightening the sense of urgency but also to put the viewer almost squarely in the shoes of the protagonist, whose job pre-plane crash was to protect the rig men by shooting wolves. (Post-crash and with little ammo left, he finds that the good ol’ fist can be put to unique use.)

Then there are the howling choruses, with wolves and wind alike delivering howls that, obviously enough, signify impending doom. Then there is all that snow for miles and all those wolves, depicted as ruthlessly overbearing and outnumbering the men. The white panoramas are such that, in the harrowing instances when man or beast gets killed, the bloodshed red-dily punctures the immaculate landscape.

Men unfit for mankind

And then there are The Grey’s episodic forays into philosophizing and spirituality—faith and fate coming under scrutiny as the steadily decreasing band of survivors assess their harsh predicament. In the process, The Grey becomes the latest in a continual line of movies that depict how fragile human life is in the teeth of nature (wolf fangs and all) and the latest flick to depict the earthly frailty of the body against the ethereal endurance of the spirit.

Yet the most noticeable overall aspect to The Grey has to do with its subconscious theme. In portraying endangered people trying to escape their icy and dicey dilemma, in portraying their very workplace as a veritable bodega of skilled labor for “men unfit for mankind,” and in portraying some of the characters as proverbially embracing the light as they lay dying, The Grey proposes that there will always be a better place out there for anyone in the direst of situations.

In an ending that I for one applaud, Carnahan et al. eschew a clean, ideal conclusion in favor of compelling ambiguity—an ambiguity that a four-second epilogue tucked at the very end of the end credits punctuates with visual glee.

All told and depending on the viewer, The Grey is either a half-empty or half-full experience. I was certain of one thing, however: I left the theater hoping anew to someday buy Liam Neeson a full glass of beer. – Rappler.com

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