The Grey makes the most of its man versus nature tale

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      Starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, and Dermot Mulroney. Rated 18A.

      Human beings have always demonized animals, no doubt because it helps us forget that we are the most destructive species on the planet. For obvious reasons, Hollywood has no problem with this particular prejudice, especially when it’s harnessed to either a horror-movie or a disaster-flick format.

      In The Grey, the demonic animals happen to be wolves, not the real animals that stalk deer in the northern woods but the creatures of night and fog that haunted the Middle Ages. Because a plane crash is also involved, leaving the few survivors alone in an Alaskan wilderness where the ancestor of man’s best friend treats them like really Big Macs, director Joe Carnahan manages to give us two exploitation films for the price of one.

      If that was all there was to The Grey, it probably wouldn’t be worth watching, but, happily, there’s more. Carnahan and cowriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers make their roughneck characters seem both credible and unsentimentally sympathetic. This characterization is helped along by a good ear for dialogue. (At one particularly desperate point, a survivor expostulates: “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in Fuck City, population five and dwindling.”)

      The real reason to see this movie, though, is Liam Neeson. Dogged by grief and suicidal impulses, his character John Ottway must inspire the will to live in others, a will that he himself does not possess. Born in Ireland and now a sniper charged with shooting wolves that threaten pipeline workers (I wonder how many real people can answer to that job description), Ottway is also at war with nature and the supernatural force that may or may not be behind it. When raging at God, Neeson manages to create an emotional reality that could hold its own with Marlon Brando’s inner demons.

      You will probably remember these monologues long after you’ve forgotten everything else about this film.

      Watch the trailer for The Grey.