01/27/2012 09:10 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Movie Review: The Grey

I have a hard time getting scared by horror films that deal in the supernatural. But a horror film such as The Grey has an easier time sinking its teeth into me.

I'm too pragmatic to worry about the paranormal, I guess -- but trapped in the Arctic wilderness, menaced by wolves? Now that's a horrifying thought.

Director Joe Carnahan understands the genre. Sure, it's about the big, computer-generated wolves, with their growls, snarls and gnashing of large vulpine teeth. But it's also about the rest of it: the big what-if about what you are capable of doing to survive in that situation.

And who better to lead you through that obstacle course of weather, terrain and predators than Liam Neeson, as Ottway, a guy who knows what it means to have nothing left to lose? Who better, really, than a guy who hides so far away from the rest of the world that he's working as a professional hunter at an oilfield in Alaska, where roughnecks work in an environment so threatening that a sniper has to pick off the wolves who rush out of the woods to attack the humans?

For irony, the film catches Ottway at a particularly low point: He puts his own gun in his mouth, ready to end it all -- but not quite ready enough. The next thing we know, he's on a plane back to civilization with a band of oil workers -- which then crashes into the wilderness, leaving only a dozen or so passengers alive.

Ottway rallies the handful of survivors, who huddle in the wreckage in the middle of a snowfield, gathering supplies for the long trek home. They also have to keep an eye out for the pack of wolves that seems to lurk in the shadows of every fire they can manage, given the whipping winds.

Eventually, the humans figure out that they have to make a run for it and then trek south in hopes of either hitting a road or being rescued. Once in the trees, they find the terrain rougher and more threatening, with the wolves no less of a threat.

Yes, it's the kind of action-drama in which the group of survivors dwindles. Will the last ones be able to survive until they're rescued?

Carnahan captures the relentless nature of this struggle to survive, the primal sense of story that infused the best work of Jack London. The Grey has the kind of dreadful inevitability that London captured in To Build A Fire -- the sense that Mother Nature is a powerful force, and not a benevolent one.

There's a stolid, implacable quality to Neeson that is just what this role demands. Even as they fight for their lives, Neeson and his band of survivors (which include Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney and James Badge Dale) reveal themselves to each other, which the hard-charging Carnahan handles with a poignant touch.

There's not a ton of layers here: It's man vs. nature and you can read whatever you want into it, because the metaphorical possibilities seem limitless. Carnahan gets through the set-up, then really lets the viewer feel the blend of terror and freezing cold with which these guys must contend. From there, he's just relentless, creating tension that wrings you out.

The Grey is gruesome at times, but it's also involving emotionally, as the puny mortals reveal themselves to each other in the face of something as insurmountable as the frigid Alaskan outback. It's an adventure tale with some meat on it.

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