Liam Neeson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying John Ottway in The Grey.
Liam Neeson is an actor who definitely has had a most unusual career path. His earliest claims to fame where his leading performances in very dramatic pictures like Schindler's List, and Michael Collins. He drifted briefly into the role of the go to mentor in films like Gangs of New York, and the Phantom Menace among many others. Than suddenly he became a badass action hero despite being over fifty years old. The Grey represents this transition well as very much physical work is required of him here, but in this case his performances of old are harkened back by the dramatic core found in his character here as well.
Neeson portrays John Ottway who works as a wolf hunter to protect oil drillers. This is a rather unique lead to have in a survival film as usually the leads of such films slowly become pessimistic in some way through the failures and deaths during their attempts to survive. Ottway on the other hand starts out as suicidal and early on considers suicide to the point that he even sticks his rifle into his mouth, but he stops just before doing so. It is an odd place to start with Ottway, but Neeson knows how to handle it by internalizing this dread in Ottway in fashion that it is right in the man's bones.
The depression Ottway is facing as well as his heartbreak over the death of his wife is only portrayed just about silently by Neeson. He does this really quite well by showing it very much as state of that Ottway is in. He is not necessarily depressed in the way an average man would be but Neeson shows Ottway to be a very hard man from the get go. It would be wrong for him to be excessively emotional in this moment, particularly since Ottway seems to be clearly a loner, but Neeson still conveys the pain that creates this depression in a way that is perfectly fitting for Ottway.
After the plane crash though Ottway sort of gets a sense of purpose which is just basic survival. Neeson has a certain type of presence here that few actors these days are able to deliver on. What that is is being a real man's man. Neeson makes Ottway as such and he just oozes in strength of will in his portrayal as a man who is willing to fight wolves with only a stick and a shotgun shell. He makes Ottway's ability to press on and even suggest fighting the wolves something that is entirely believable. Neeson simply has the conviction in his performance to make Ottway the survivalist he should be.
One of the best indications of Neeson unique presence is the way that he sets up Ottway as the defacto leader of the surviving men. Neeson does not leave it as something that can even be questioned he has just such a great command with his performance, that even though he is older than the others he easily is the one who stands the strongest in the situation. Neeson absolutely delivers in this way, and his scenes where he puts one of the other survivors in his place who is acting particularly rebellious. Neeson has such an assurance in his performance that he makes it abundantly clear that Ottway will stay absolutely in charge.
Neeson knows how to be both an imposing figure as Ottway, but also with just the right amount of vulnerability to allow us to sympathize with his plight as well. Neeson though is very good because he never compromises for either. When he does let us in on his internal emotions he still very much keeps the strengths of Ottway in view. In the more philosophical moments of the film Neeson is strong because he marvelously balances both cynicism and optimism in Ottway. Yes a great deal of what he says is gloom filled, but Neeson is terrific in showing that there is a spark of hope in Ottway that hope that really is what keeps him going during the film.
This is a performance that very much has the challenge of realizing the personal struggle of Ottway while moving along with the pressing physical struggle. Neeson is quite good in doing this as he gives the short moments throughout to realize this part of Ottway. It does not come out fully until near the end of the film where Ottway is the last man standing. There are two scenes in a row where Neeson breaks the conviction to survival that Ottway expressed earlier. By building quietly to this point Neeson is quite powerful when Ottway breaks down asking God for help. It is a powerful scene with Neeson showing in this moment that Ottway despite holding to this point is almost at his end.
That louder moment by Neeson though is trumped by his very last scene which is almost silent. The scene depicts Ottway examining and piling the wallets of the fallen. It is a moving scene in which Neeson brings all the poignancy the moment needs. The film has many deaths, and Neeson in this moment gives them the weight they deserve. This quickly leads to the moment in which Ottway is face with the Alpha Wolf. Neeson is terrific as he portrays that spark of hope at the end fuels him to make Ottway make at least one more stand. Although the ending is sudden Neeson honestly is the one who earns through his performance as it powerfully finishes Ottway's journey from a suicidal man to one who stands and fights even when death seems like an inevitability. Neeson gives a strong performance creating a portrait of great confidence, and a certain weakness leading this film in an entirely convincing manner that fits the film's tone perfectly.