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The Review Revue: THE GREY

In “The Review Revue,” we turn dozens of movie reviews from all over the Internet into one handy blog post. It’s like super-concentrated orange juice for film criticism (with less pulp and Vitamin D). This week: we get the black and white truth on THE GREY.

What a perfect time of year for THE GREY, a film whose barren Arctic setting echoes the chilly atmosphere inside multiplexes around the country in the sad month of January. Perhaps THE GREY, from director Joe Carnahan and star Liam Neeson, will be the film to warm the winter movie doldrums. Carnahan and Neeson last teamed for the big-screen version of THE A-TEAM. Will critics give this team’s new movie an A for effort? Or an F for “freezing to death while being chased by wolves?” Let’s find out.

Director: Joe Carnahan
Writers: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Cast: Liam Neeson (Ottway), Frank Grillo (Diaz), Dermot Mulroney (Talget)
Plot Synopsis: A plane carrying the employees of an Alaskan oil refinery crashes in the Canadian wilderness. The survivors need to find civilization — and avoid the wild wolves that are hunting them.
Trailer:

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
Metacritic Score: 63

Most Positive: Shawn Levy, The Oregonian:

“Neeson brings the expected lordly hardiness to bear, to much better effect than in his recent run of B-grade action pictures. Ottway has a fair bit of action hero in him, of course, but he’s deep and conflicted, with persuasive stores of rue and the gumption to call out God himself when things are truly dire.  At one point, Neeson inveighs against the heavens in a way that no other action movie star of the modern era could attempt without leaving the audience in stitches, and he more than sells it; he makes you feel it.”

(In Other Words:) Critics are quite taken with Neeson’s work. It’s been a strange and unpredictable couple of years for Liam Neeson. Ever since TAKEN became the surprise hit of the winter of 2008, Oskar Schindler has been reborn as an action star — a remarkable feat for a man on the cusp of 60. Since then he’s made big budget action spectacles like CLASH OF THE TITANS and Carnahan’s THE A-TEAM and another stripped-down Euro-thriller, UNKNOWN. But just as audiences were beginning to get a hang on this latest phase of Rob Roy’s career — burly, muscular, and remarkably brain-free — he’s swerved on them. THE GREY may look like another film about Liam Neeson, the unstoppable, unflappable killing machine, but it’s a good deal more complicated — and a good deal more thoughtful — than that. Neeson’s character, an oil refinery security guard named Ottway, desperately misses his wife — a character trait presumably shared by Neeson himself, whose own wife, Natasha Richardson, passed away three years ago. Whether Neeson recognized or was attracted to the autobiographical elements of the film, he gives the moments where Ottway think of his wife — or rages against God for his misfortunes — surprising emotional resonance that, as Levy notes, would be inconceivable in almost any other action hero’s films.

Most Negative: Michelle Sherrow, PETA:

“A film that has the potential to scare more people than Little Red Riding Hood, THE GREY portrays these intelligent, family-oriented animals the same way in which JAWS portrays sharks. The writers paint a pack of wolves living in the Alaskan wilderness as bloodthirsty monsters, intent on killing every survivor of a plane crash by tearing each person limb from limb. Yet wolves aren’t aggressive animals, and as Maggie Howell, the managing director of America’s Wolf Conservation Center, says, “Wolves don’t hunt humans—they actually shy away from them.” Don’t just shy away — run away from THE GREY.”

(In Other Words:) A documentary on wolves, this is not. The comparison to JAWS is excessive, but it’s not entirely off — the wolf pack (one of the wolves totally looks like Ed Helms, by the way) does get anthropomorphized as a bunch of sentient death beasts hungry for revenge (most of Neeson’ crew die after they kill one of the wolves). I suppose that proves PETA’s point and undercuts its argument too — THE GREY depicts wolves the way JAWS depicts sharks, which means it depicts wolves in a fairly ridiculous way. I’m not gonna go prancing around the forests of Canada with broken bottles taped to my fists to prove it, but I’m confident this is not how a survivors vs. wolves thing would go down. Let’s not forget PETA’s pro-animal agenda, or Joe Carnahan’s pro-making money agenda; he’s trying to make the most exciting and suspenseful film he could. To do that he might have taken the depiction of wolves into a, y’know, grey area.

Most Typical: Tim Robey, The Telegraph:

“What’s less predictable, though, is the film’s grizzled commitment to staring death in the face. Joe Carnahan, directing, made such a noisy hash of male camaraderie in his revamp of THE A-TEAM that I didn’t expect something this harshly downbeat or sad. It feels like Jack London by way of Walter Hill, with ruggedly lovely cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (WARRIOR). The movie’s craft wobbles when the wolves are around, but it’s right that they come to seem a menace more abstract than fully palpable. They are monsters, and the men, too, become monsters.”

(In Other Words:) THE GREY is not the festival of wolf punching you expect. As Robey notes, and as I wrote in my own piece for IFC.com, the films is a good deal darker and more complex than its trailer — or its director’s recent filmography — suggests. Jack London by way of Walter Hill is a really nice way of putting it. The setting is pure White Fang but the lean action, soulful dialogue, and almost complete lack of female characters could belong to something by the director of THE DRIVER or UNDISPUTED. It’s not necessarily the feel-good movie of the year (unless you want to read it from the perspective of a bunch of hungry wolves, in which case it’s practically IT’S A WONDERFUL WOLF LIFE), but it’s a coldly beautiful film with a surprisingly warm and squishy (albeit incredibly sad) center.

The One Review You Have to Read: Devin Faraci, Badass Digest:

“THE GREY feels like the most Joe Carnahan movie since NARC; I once had the pleasure of dining with Carnahan and he’s a big, blustery storyteller with a strong and aggressive wit. He’s the kind of guy you would want by your side should you be trapped in the wilderness; I don’t know that he has much survival knowledge, but he comes across as having survival will. In a lot of ways THE GREY feels like a metaphor for Carnahan’s own filmmaking journey; again and again the director seems home-free on a project only to have it crash and burn, leaving him stranded with a few compadres attempting to reach the next movie.”

(In Other Words:) THE GREY is not about wolves; it’s about survival (in Hollywood). Plenty of reviews observed the larger themes in THE GREY about the fragile nature of existence, the lack of a divine power, and the parallels that can be drawn between the wolves’ behavior and the human’s (with Neeson’s Ottway taking the role of the alpha male). But Faraci’s the only critic who found a buried film industry critique in this woodland adventure. He’s right too — moviemaking is a team effort, but it’s also about self-reliance; what you are willing to do and how far you are willing to go for what you believe in. You can can cry and scream to God (or your assistant director) for help, but if you want something done right you’re going to have to do it yourself.

The Critical Consensus In One Sentence From One Review: ” An adventure film… with a spiritual ingredient that is both surprising and fiercely resonant.” — John Anderson, The Wall Street Journal

THE GREY is now playing in wide release.