Starring: Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo
Directed by: Joe Carnahan  (“The A-Team”)
Written by: Joe Carnahan (“The A-Team”) and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (“Death Sentence”)

What is man’s most primal fear? Losing everything he loves? Dying alone? The unknown? These are only a few of the themes explored in “The Grey,” a surprisingly thoughtful character-driven thriller with a lot more to say than most man vs. Mother Nature survival stories. Imagine if all films that fell under this category were as emotionally rich as, say, “Cast Away,” “127 Hours,” “Into the Wild,” or “Jeremiah Johnson.” It might be easier to examine a lone man fighting for life than to tackle the complexities of a group under siege, but “The Grey” gets about as close as any mainstream movie has in recent years with its study of a team of oil drillers.

Director/writer Joe Carnahan, who broke into the scene in 2002 with the gritty, well-executed cop drama “Narc” before dropping two cinematic bombs (“Smokin’ Aces,” “The A-Team”), was motivated by the fear of being known for those last two mind-numbing contributions. “I started getting concerned that I was being viewed … as this schmucky action director that doesn’t really have anything meaningful to say,” Carnahan admitted during an interview with NPR last week. With “The Grey,” Carnahan, who is currently linked to a “Death Wish” remake and a crime drama centered on Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, doesn’t have to worry anymore. “The Grey” has substance without getting too preachy or philosophical.

Led by John Ottway (Liam Neeson in another alpha-male role), a team of suddenly planeless oil drillers must fend off a vicious pack of grey wolves stalking them from the darkness of the snow-covered wilderness. Walk into “The Grey” hoping to see a wolf get dropkicked in the snout or a stockpile of wolf-eaten bodies and be prepared for disappointment. This isn’t about man-on-wolf combat as much as it is about confronting one’s own mortality. It may have felt insincere had it been anyone else screaming to God to show him a sign He exists, but with Neeson digging as deep as he does it all rings unexpectedly true.

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