“The Grey” a pulpy survival tale unafraid to get philosophical.

In spite of what marketing may have you believe, “The Grey” is not about tough men punching wolves in the face. “The Grey” is about God, man’s weakness, nature, grappling with death and fear; and yeah, a wolf or two are slain in the process. This is a great film; one that asks big questions and scores big thrills.

No question, it’s one of the most bleak, philosophically challenging films to come out of the Hollywood mainstream in quite some time. Directed by Joe Carnahan, whose output has largely consisted of competent if inconsequential actioners, it’s a complete reinvention, from a hack to something resembling an auteur.

Liam Neeson, giving his best performance since 1993’s “Schindler’s List”, plays John Ottway. He’s a suicidal sharpshooter whose gig in desolate Alaska is to protect oil-drillers from raging wolves. When his plane-ride home crashes horrifically in the midst of Alaska, Ottway and six other survivors find themselves in the middle of nowhere, with the blistering cold, inner clashes, and ravenous wolves all conspiring to make sure they never get home.

“The Grey” is a perfect blend of generally incongruous elements: pulpy survival tale, intimate character study, thrilling adventure, and – here’s the shocking part – spiritual exploration.

It tackles incredibly weighty themes with grace and wisdom. Why doesn’t God answer peoples’ cries for help? Who is the film’s malicious force — the wolves for attacking the humans, or the humans, for intruding on their habitat and upsetting the natural order? Can man and nature ever truly co-exist? (Stay after the credits for the disturbing resolution to this particular issue) It does all this in a totally natural, moving way. It never sits us down and holds our hand through it.

Mind you, it’s certainly a thriller first and thinker second. “The Grey”‘s structure is a constant alternation between moments of unbearable horror and satisfying action. Carnahan really nails the portrayal of wolves as totally unpredictable forces. Their presence is always felt but rarely seen, save for the moments where they’re, you know, ripping a character’s throat out.

Carnahan’s greatest strength lies in the subtle character development, both in between and during the moments of intensity. Many of these characters are blank slates for the film’s first half, and these guys’ unpredictability is yet another asset to “The Grey”‘s considerable tension. It’s also a gorgeously shot movie: Masanobu Takayanagi’s compositions stare into icy brutality and find, of all things, genuine beauty.

January, as a rule of thumb, is a studio’s dumping ground; a place to offshoot whatever embarrassments don’t fulfill their already-low standards. So it’s almost with suspicion that I regard “The Grey”, but also with elation. A triumph for all involved, save for those damned characters. A-

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