This is what winter in Reno used to be like … before stupid global warming ruined the fun.
This is what winter in Reno used to be like … before stupid global warming ruined the fun.

Liam Neeson battles nature and puts up a mighty good fight in director Joe Carnahan’s totally absorbing and devastating survival pic The Grey.

The film tells the scary and surprisingly emotional tale of some Alaskan oil drillers who find themselves stranded in the middle of frozen tundra after their plane crashes. There’s scant chance of survival due to lack of food, lack of shelter, and lack of time before temperatures drop and people freeze.

There’s also the little matter of nasty, evil wolves trying to dismember them as they fight to stay warm and find food. The animals in The Grey have very little in common with White Fang. Actually, they make the werewolf from An American Werewolf in London look like an elderly pug.

Neeson, in a performance that regains him a lot of respect after trash like Taken and Unknown, plays Ottway, a depressed sharpshooter working as a wolf exterminator for an oil drilling company. If a wolf is tracking and preparing to pounce on one of his coworkers, it’s his job to pick it off with a rifle before teeth go into leg.

Ottway has seen better days, and is dealing with depression brought on by an undisclosed event involving his wife. He isn’t in the best of shape when he boards a plane with his coworkers, and his mood doesn’t brighten when the plane goes down in a harrowing sequence.

And so starts a survival ordeal that makes Lord of the Flies look like summer camp with extra cherry popsicles. To prevent anarchy, Ottway becomes the de facto leader, or alpha, of the group, trying to share his knowledge of the animals with his fellow strugglers. They take his survival coaching with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Chief among his detractors is Diaz (played superbly by Frank Grillo), an ill-tempered ex-con who gets chastised early on by Ottway for trying to steal stuff off of dead bodies from the crash. This gets their relationship off to a bad start, and the Diaz-Ottway showdown becomes one of the film’s more compelling human interactions. Grillo takes a role that looks like your typical movie baddie, and winds up doing so much more with it.

Also in the group are Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) as the young guy who talks too much, and Dermot Mulroney, who keeps getting better with age, as the older, regular Joe of the group. As with Grillo, each actor takes their part and turns it into something memorable and moving. They make you care a lot for these guys, and when characters start dying off, it hits hard.

There’s a scene in the film when Ottway talks a man through death, and this scene will stand as one of the more emotionally true and moving scenes of the year. I know it’s only January, but I’m going to go ahead and make that declaration.

Would timber wolves really track and systematically pick off a group of men as they do in this film? I don’t know. I do know that the way Carnahan presents the whole ordeal is as much horror movie as it is survival yarn, and the film made me jump on more than one occasion. He does such a great job with the presentation that I really don’t care how much of it was authentic and true-to-life.

The wolves themselves are a mixture of practical and computer effects. Not every shot works, with a few having that “fake” look. The shots that work are solid, and good enough to forgive those few moments when it’s obviously not a real wolf.

With The Grey, we are looking at 2012’s first great movie, and one that might’ve garnered Neeson and Grillo some 2011 Oscar consideration had it been delivered this past December. I’m curious to see if their names come up 11 months from now. See the movie, and you’ll see why I think they should.

And stay through the credits.

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