The Grey: Liam Neeson’s best action film tackles masculinity – and a few wolves too | Movies

OOver the years, there have been plenty of wilderness survival movies, loads of Liam Neeson action flicks, and a few depictions of hungry wolves hungry for human flesh. Joe Carnahan’s chilling 2011 action-thriller The Gray ticks all three boxes, and more — not only does it feature the grizzled Irishman, it has him wrestling with ravenous dogs. After being bitten during a moment of man vs. wolf action (oh yeah, there’s more!), Neeson’s outspoken protagonist John Ottway jokes, “Maybe I’ll turn into a man- wolf now.”

But it’s not that kind of movie. That said, one of the amazing things about The Gray – Neeson’s best action movie by far – is that it blurs the line between high art and low art. This allowed it to be accurately marketed as a gnarly genre image (Neeson! Wolves! Snow! Survival!) and then, once at the door, audiences who expected little more than a interspecies fist found itself grappling with, and potentially sniffing through, a deep exploration of masculinity. The Gray contains extraordinarily moving sequences that give me chills just thinking about it.

The Gray trailer.

Set in remote Alaska, the film follows a small group of plane crash survivors – all men – as they navigate an unforgiving, storm-ravaged landscape populated by wolves. The white expanse that surrounds them offers the barest of aesthetic platforms: a sort of hollowed-out stage in a theater of the damned. The men, who all work at an oil refinery, include the wise Ottway, the belligerent Diaz (Frank Grillo), Burke (Nonso Anozie) and Talget (Dermot Mulroney), who carries with him the wallets of those who died in the accident .

Neeson’s opening narration establishes the basic character and situational details (“A job at the end of the world. A hired killer for a big oil company”) then shifts to wistful self-analysis (“I don’t don’t know why I’ve done half the time things I’ve done”), evoking a sense of belonging and purpose (“but I know this is where I belong”). first moments, Ottway prepares to die by suicide, but stops when he hears wolves howling, he is a man on the brink before becoming the deeply principled moral center of the film, rather than a gung-ho type, all-guns-blazing.

After the visceral plane crash sequence, Ottway tends to a dying man who goes (coldly, from my perspective) named Luke. Luke loses blood and asks for help. Instead of telling him everything will be fine, Ottway tenderly cradles the man’s head in his hands and says words no one wants to hear.

“Look, you’re going to die, that’s what’s happening,” he said. Accompanying poor doomed Luke to the afterlife, Ottway tells him that “it’s okay, it’s going to slide on you, it’s going to start to get hot, nice and hot” and encourages him to think about his daughter: “Let- take her away.”

I can’t watch this scene without gushing. It resonates in part with the absence of comparable moments in comparable productions; the action genre tends to be dominated by a testosterone-filled hubbub that means and stands for nothing. We don’t know Luke, but his death runs deep. It’s unusual for a scene with this kind of dramatic weight to last 20 minutes in an action movie. It gives a hell of a tone and a very high reference.

The rest of the movie doesn’t disappoint: it’s superbly acted and directed, and has a lot to say about masculinity, “toxic” and the like. These guys are badass—Ottway describes the company he hangs out with as “ex-con, fugitives, wanderers, assholes”—but they can’t solve their problems here using their fists. It communicates a message that applies to life more generally: there will always be something, or someone, physically stronger – but inner strength is another matter. In one scene, Diaz, initially a little mean (but becoming more complex), makes it clear that he’s insulted to be called scared. “What’s wrong with being afraid? Ottoway asks. “I’m terrified. And not an ounce of shame to say it.

Neeson’s superb performance and clever writing create a space where the film can play both ways: showing the protagonist as an alpha male, kicking ass wolf and doing guy stuff, but also as a priest-like spiritual figure. reasoning, penetrating all that macho BS. What an awesome character; what an amazing movie. Come for the wolves, stay for the pathos.

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