My full review of The Grey is available at the Herald.

I gave The Grey a B. I thought it was harrowing and gorgeous, but that Liam Neeson’s despairing badass sometimes descended into tough-guy cliches. My take turned out somewhere between the exasperated enjoyment of the AV Club‘s Scott Tobias and the visceral awe of the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott. But even as I was writing about how I mostly enjoyed The Grey, I thought I might be underrating it. Not because I was wrong to fault it for being soulful/manly to the point of ridiculousness. I’m never wrong in those reviews composed 48 hours after seeing a movie I’ve discussed with no one and purposely try to avoid knowing anything about beforehand.

But The Grey is a movie I could watch a hundred times.

This isn’t necessarily a guarantee of quality. I could watch 2012 a hundred times, too. Even, God help me, The Day After Tomorrow. But my personal list of endlessly rewatchable movies also includes stuff like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Inception, and Zodiac, so it’s not like it’s all raw garbage, either. The one thing these movies good or bad have in common is an extremely well-realized setting.

I just get lost in those worlds. Even if that particular world involves wolves loping along the glaciers of New York City while the humans valiantly attempt to outrun global warming itself. The Grey has a landscape you can get lost in. Driving, blinding snowstorms. Looming pine trees. Misty peaks. Gleaming blue ice. Frigid rivers slashing down the slopes. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason I’d happily throw it on the DVD player every day until the DVD becomes unviable. I’m also highly attracted to wilderness survival stories. No no no, not like that–I mean I want to have sex with them. No, wait. I mean I really enjoy them, possibly because the plots are so boiled-down. Are these guys going to make it out alive? How are they going to get over that stream? Can they start a fire in the rain? The questions are pretty yes or no. Either they’re going to get devoured by wolves or they won’t. Not a lot of ambiguity there. I like ambiguity as much as the next guy–or do I?–but sometimes it’s nice to be told a story that is what it is.

So The Grey very much has that going for it. It moves fleetly from one simple act of survival to the next while Neeson and the others are dogged (heh heh) by a pack of angry wolves. It isn’t all violent pack-attacks, either. During one scene, Neeson and the others cluster together in the woods at night. Beyond the light, a wolf howls, but it’s close enough to see its breath. A moment later, the pack answers. From sixty feet away, twenty other columns of breathy mist rise into the darkness.

It’s chilling. It’s the kind of moment that makes you happy to be there.

I have some issues with the support cast, though. Visually, they’re all but indistinguishable, mostly white guys with dark beards and heavy clothes. One guy has glasses, I guess, and one guy’s Hispanic, but most of their individual traits don’t emerge until after the point where they’ve already become an amorphous blob in my head. They’re basically there to be killed one by one in typical horror movie fashion. Even when they are given defining identities, a lot of it is this very simple storytelling/Hollywood thing where they’re all defined by a single trait. One guy’s whole personality is that he loves his daughter and tells this anecdote about her. That kind of thing. It’s the illusion of depth.

But really, that’s beside the point. This is Neeson’s show. The only word for what he’s got is gravity. It’s a strange situation, too–Neeson’s character is haunted by the wife he lost. Meanwhile, Neeson’s real-life wife died in a skiing accident about three years ago. He’s said on record he’s chosen all these action roles lately for the specific purpose of working through that. The performance he gives is pretty remarkable and goes a long way to defray the action-movie toughguy cliches surrounding his character. I don’t know if it’s because of the specific emotions he’s able to channel here, or simply that he’s a great actor, but it’s a hell of a performance. It works even when he’s busy talking about death, which, like I said in the review, is extremely challenging to do without sounding stupid.

For me, there’s a very simple truth at work here. One where the will to survive becomes a metaphor for persistence. Early in the movie, Neeson’s ready to kill himself. He’s sitting in the snow with a gun in his mouth. Then he hears the howl of one of the wolves he’s paid to protect his coworkers from. The literal call of the wild reminds him of his own animal instinct to keep going. From that moment on, that’s all he does. He keeps moving. He keeps thinking. He keeps trying. Even when it’s down to him against the alpha wolf, and all he can do is strap some broken bottles to his hands, he keeps fighting. Anything else would be giving up–and his will can’t allow him to do that.

I think that’s what gets me about The Grey. I probably won’t ever be stranded in a dangerous wilderness. If I ever find myself hunted by wolves, I would probably just laugh. But we all face discouragement every single day. Why keep trying? Why keep going?

Because there’s no other choice.

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