With a career spanning decades, Liam Neeson is arguably one of the hardest working actors working in Hollywood today, and quite rightly often considered one of Ireland’s best exports. With an incredible body of work, including Steven Spielberg‘s 1993 hit Schindler’s List and Neil Jordan‘s 1996 biopic Michael Collins, Neeson has continued to step into uncharted territory over the years, consistently reinventing himself as he goes along. And while audiences of a certain age may tend to remember him for his more dramatic performances, younger cinephiles have come to know him as one of the world’s biggest action stars. Thanks to starring roles Pierre Morel‘s Taken and its subsequent sequels, as well as his frequent collaborations with filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, the actor spectacularly redesigned himself once again. However, in between all the knockout punches and deadly gunfire, he quietly delivered what is possibly the performance of his life. After working together on 2010’s The A-TeamNeeson and director Joe Carnahan re-teamed in 2011 for survival drama The Gray. While considerably less action-packed than what millennials may be used to seeing from him, the film demonstrates just how effectively the Irish star is able to shed old skin and become something new entirely.
In The Gray, Neeson plays Ottway, a highly skilled sharpshooter who protects oil workers from predatory wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. When their plane goes down, killing most of the crew, Ottway and the remaining survivors must outrun a pack of vicious wolves, whose territory they have unintentionally stepped inside. It’s a film that is both harrowing and beautiful but what stands out the most is just how contradictory Neeson’s portrayal of Ottway is.
In the opening scenes of the movie, we witness the character on the brink of suicide, still haunted by the tragic death of his wife. In fact, throughout the entire film he continues to see her during her final moments and without him saying a word we know he longs to be reunited with her. At the same time, he does all he can to outsmart, outpace, and fight off the wolf pack so that he can go on living. And so, the actor’s ability to embody a character who wishes to both live and die simultaneously is nothing short of astonishing. This then begs the question, how are we, as viewers, supposed to feel? Should we wish for him to die, so he can finally be at peace? Or do we pray that he survives? Arguably, this is exactly the type of reaction any actor should hope for from their audience. It means we have responded emotionally.
Again, what makes the film such a peculiar work in Neeson’s catalog is that it is sandwiched between his turns as the fearless, relentless, almost invincible warrior. In The Gray, however, he is far quieter, fragile, restrained. As Ottway, Neeson is a hunting expert with a deep knowledge of wolves and their environment. Yet, without his rifle, and against the unbearable cold, he is far more vulnerable. Gone are the martial arts and quotable one-liners that leave grown men fearing for their lives. In fact, in one particular sequence, Ottway asks the obnoxious Diaz (Frank Grillo) if he is afraid. When Diaz claims that he is not, Ottway reveals that he himself is terrified. It’s a powerful moment that lets us know that this isn’t the same man who can miraculously save the day and make everything that hurts stop hurting. Despite this, we are never led to believe that the character is entirely incapable of making it out alive. His toughness is still intact. In one key scene, when Diaz challenges him, Ottway makes it crystal clear, without raising a fist, that this is a fight that Diaz will lose. Similarly, his ability to lead is another demonstration of his dominance within the group. He does not take charge because he wants to but because he is the only one who can. Here Neeson’s character is still the hero, but simply stripped of all the unnecessary decoration.
If there is one moment in The Gray that stays etched in memory, it is during the third act where our protagonist finds himself completely alone with no one to turn to. After the death of Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Ottway is the last man standing. After having told his companions that he does not believe in a higher power earlier in the film, the character finally snaps and looks to the sky as he pleads with God to help him. The dialogue is perfectly delivered, his facial expression a signifier of utter desperation, a culmination of days of panic, anguish, and fear. It is in this moment where we come to realize just how helpless the character is, which, in turn, drives home the movie’s larger message: despite man’s dominance, he is still no match for the natural world. To encompass all of this in one short monologue, without any supporting cast, is no easy feat and therefore an authentic demonstration of Neeson’s devotion to the character and his unfathomable talent as an actor. In short, it’s the man at his absolute best.
The Gray is, perhaps, one of the most overlooked movies not just of Liam Neeson’s career, but of the 2010s altogether. Arguably, it is easy to see why it did not receive the same attention as Taken. There is no beautifully choreographed combat sequence, nor is there a beautiful girl to be rescued, and no happy ending for any of the characters. However, it would be naive of fans of the star to disregard the film because of this. As Ottway, Neeson gives us his most delicate, honest, and human performance. Can we relate to a man who kills wolves for a living and recites poetry in between? Probably not. But we can see ourselves in a man who, despite how badly life has treated him, simply wants to continue living. Even as he finds himself surrounded by the enemy, he never gives up. And isn’t that all we want from our screen heroes?