I haven't seen this pointed out elsewhere, which doesn't mean it hasn't been, but: The Grey stars Liam Neeson as a man who responds to the tragic and premature death of his wife by journeying to extreme places to take jobs that require him to kill things. I shall absolutely not go so far as to say that it's a deliberate self-commentary, particularly since Neeson wasn't the first actor attached, and since his new career as cinema's favorite aging badass was ignited with 2008's Taken, before the shocking death of his wife Natasha Richardson; but surely we can all agree that he turned into a full-flung action star in The A-Team, Unknown, and the upcoming Battleship (and if you really want to push it, Clash of the Titans) with eyebrow-raising speed; the pop-psychologist in me can't help but wonder if just a tiny part of that is the rage of a man against how goddamn unfair life is, expressed in a series of splashy and pornographically violent fantasies about getting revenge on all the bad guys.

I maybe would not have brought this up, but for the fact that The Grey feels so much like an esoteric commentary on the idea of a "Liam Neeson action movie", and even if it were not that, would still be quite a hell of a case study in a man whose grief at his loss (which is potentially a spoiler, given how long the film takes to actually confirm it, but you'd have to be pretty obtuse not to pick up what's going on immediately) has sent him into an incredibly dark place, both emotionally (one of the very first things we see him do is place a gun barrel in his mouth and think about it for a couple moments) and physically (the film takes place in Alaska). It is almost a parody of a film that a bereaved husband/actor would make. I do not say this to diminish Neeson's feelings, nor to show off that I is teh clever film kritic, but to explain how The Grey, anchored by Neeson's brittle, empty-faced performance, manages to achieve the kind of stark, almost cosmic bleakness that a movie about a wildnerness hero fighting wolves should theoretically not be able to reach. I mean, holy shit you guys, The Grey is kind of a little masterpiece.

Neeson plays Ottway, a man who has been brought north of the Arctic Circle to keep wolves off a local oil crew by means of a sniper rifle. Where he comes from and who he is, we don't know. We just know that he is all out of everything that makes a human being. The morning after he kills a wolf rather than himself, he and the rest of the crew hop on a plane to go even further north; they hit a pocket of turbulence and crash somewhere way the fuck up in the mountains. Only seven men remain, a neat cross-section of personalities, skills, and races, but they have ended up right smack in the territory of a wolf pack; Ottway, the only man among them who knows the animals, immediately determines that they are going to be hunted not as food but as potentially dangerous intruders, and the only decent idea he or anyone else has is to make for the tree line and hope. It is not surprising to the characters nor the audience that the party of seven has been rather thinned out by the time they hit the trees, and will be thinner yet by the time they find something resembling humanity.

Here is what The Grey is not: Liam Neeson punching wolves in the face. It is, you might say, crucially not this thing; and not since at least Tangled has a movie been so thoroughly misrepresented by its ad campaign (the trailer includes virtually every single shot in the whole feature that could be plausibly called "action". Here, then, is what The Grey is: a brutally tight thriller about man vs. nature (and the best of that abused subgenre in a hell of a long time, too), married to an unexpectedly laconic, philosophical treatise on what it means to die, what it means to be alive when other people are dead, and what is owed the dead by the living and vice-versa. There is a scene, right after the crash, in which Ottway is confronted with another survivor whose wounds are far too severe to survive more than a few moments; and Ottway reassures the dying man that things will be fine, and that death will slide over him and feel pleasantly warm, and Neeson delivers this speech with a husky whisper in that wonderfully gravelly Irish voice of his that makes the whole thing seem like a nihilistic fairy tale. It sets the tone for the whole rest of the movie, which remains desperately sober about the border between life and death - the true grey of the title, rather than the perpetually overcast sky and fog-soaked valleys of Fuck-All Nowhere, Alaska.

And if that sounds grim and sort of un-fun, it is, basically. Though given how many thrillers chew through human deaths like breath mints, I'm not inclined to fault one that makes us feel it as much as The Grey does: each time the wolves or an accident claims another one of the survivors, it hurts to watch as much as it hurts the remaining members of the party to have another speck of hope mashed into nothing. And yet it never once comes across as exploitation.

In and around all of this, there's actually one hell of a thriller, a rather surprising treat from Joe Carnahan, director of Neeson in the wheezy The A-Team, as well as the deathless Smokin' Aces. It's absolutely not flawless: while it's not necessarily easy to predict where things are going from the outset, it's invariably easy to call who's going to die next thanks to a few too many lingering moments of forshadowing (Oh, so he's COUGHING and MOVING SLOWLY, is he? Aha, and is this one AFRAID OF HEIGHTS and THE LAST ONE TO CROSS THE RAVINE? Brilliant!), and there are a few gestures that straddle the line between striking and hokey, like a wolf's paw print in the snow filling with blood. I should more happily not even mention the mortifying visual effects (what is with wolves? Why are CGI wolves always so shitty?). But on the whole, it's a terrific exercise in atmosphere and tension, aided by astounding exterior photography by Masanobu Takayanagi, and even more by a tremendously dynamic soundscape that plunges the viewer right into the heart of a nightmare of wind and howling wolves, when it is not playing around with subjectivity and jarring emotional shifts with more bravery than most studio films are even aware you can get away with.

Sure, it's still ultimately "Liam Neeson versus wolves", and the lingering, R-rated carnage that results whenever the wolves get the upper hand is certainly enough for anyone whose interests are strictly prurient, though I suspect the opening act is much too moody and slow for anybody who was eager for the promised Taken by White Fang. It's also as probing and powerful as any film about the cost of living and dying in recent memory, and far more emotionally true than at least half of the films currently pottering about in the Best Picture race for the Oscars. It might lack for subtlety or grace, and a lot of it is frankly ridiculous - only by hand-waving the wolves away as allegorical can we even start to excuse some of the animal behavior on display - but it is brutally poetic as only a proper B-picture of the best old-school tradition could ever be.