What is it – that intangible, albeit human (and specifically so), part of a person that drives us to live – even in the direst circumstances?  Freud’s theory of the Libido – our life drive – is said to propel us forward by any means to sustain life.  Despite its fragility, amidst the harsh world around us, a fire born within that pushes on, fights, defends, sustains.

And yet, at the same time, in the same spirit, we have within us the ability to drive our own destruction with as much passion as we would seek to defend it.

Both of these dichotomies thrive within us, latent, and when they are tested, only the strong survives.  In a world where 95% of people sit sedentary for at least 8 of the 24 hours in a day, it would seem that they have no need.  But in the wild Alaskan wilderness, among the beasts – the wind and the wolves – the line between life and death is a tight rope walked daily.  The Grey, a new offering from “Bang-bang, Shoot ‘em up” style filmmaker Joe Carnahan (Smokin Aces, The A-Team), opens us to this world where things – good, evil, life, death, right, wrong – are not so black and white.

The story begins with Ottoway (Liam Neeson), a wolf hunter working for a Petroleum company in Alaska. He is the guardian of a sea of roughnecks from the wild beasts just beyond the gate.  Who could be tougher, or more masculine?

But Ottoway has a sensitive side, represented in flashbacks of him with his wife.   These moments of Ottoway’s internal conflict inter-cut the brutality of the Alaskan landscape and the inhabitants:  He is a warrior, but a broken one.  Surrendering to the pain, he clenches his rifle in his mouth deciding to end it all, only to be interrupted (seemingly divinely) by a howl of the wolf.  His natural enemy has saved him, and he decides to live another day.  It is this life-changing decision that drives the remainder of the plot.

Homeward bound, Ottoway and the remaining crew board a plane, only to be grounded and stranded in the middle of nowhere, and they must fight to survive the lack of food, shelter, and protection from a pack of wolves.  Quickly claiming the alpha role, the men fall in line behind Ottoway, as he pushes them beyond limits in order to survive the ultimate test of man vs wild.

Neeson’s Ottoway is a gentle combination of warrior and father figure:  powerfully brutal yet nurturing and sincere. This is a role that only he could play, and he does so with great restraint and patience in his delivery.  This film unfolds before you like a weary landscape of missteps and foot holes.   You don’t ever quite know which path you’re traveling.  But don’t let the 117-minute run time fool you, for all of the depth of character, the film never lets up on the action and suspense.  As each treacherous conflict arises, be it an impending wolf attack or overcoming the freezing conditions of the winter terrain, you are on the edge of your seat.

Supported by Masanobu Takayanagi’s spectacular cinematography, enriched with a haunting score by Marc Streitenfeld, and masterfully edited. While other films are placating to the Academy for votes, The Grey is slamming them to the back of their seats.