The Grey is a hell of a way to kick off 2012. It’s part horror film and part survival flick, with all of the Liam Neeson badassery you’ve come to expect from his on-screen personas over the past few years. Joe Carnahan (Neeson’s director on the under-appreciated 2010 film, The A-Team) shows he’s a filmmaker capable of far more than gritty crime dramas – this is one of the best survival films I’ve ever seen.
I will warn you, though – if you’re going to see the movie exclusively for the wolf-boxing scene shown in the trailer, there’s a chance you’ll be a bit disappointed. But to be completely honest, that was the sole reason I was interested in this movie, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that The Grey has much more to offer than one gimmicky sequence.
John Ottman (Neeson) is a sharpshooter working at an oil refinery in Alaska. Their base camp is filled with “men unfit for mankind”: fugitives, ex-cons, the works. Ottman’s job is to protect the men working outside from wild animals, and he’s pretty damn good at it. But when their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, the few surviving men must battle more than just the freezing temperatures and barren landscape to stay alive: a pack of wolves stalks their every move, killing them off one by one. Through harsh, unforgiving terrain and relentless pursuit by the wolves, the men must put their differences aside if they plan to make it out alive.
Though other films in the survival genre often touch on themes like fate and faith, The Grey overtly addresses these issues and, most importantly, does so in an interesting way. It wisely steers clear of using its characters as ciphers. (Example: it doesn’t feature one survivor as a preacher and another a doctor – GRRR, faith vs. science!) Instead, Carnahan chooses to depict his world in a startlingly bleak fashion, taking an existential approach to the survivor’s plight. Characters die in terrible and sometimes heartbreaking ways, lorded over by the pitiless whims of nature. It’s not the easiest thing to stomach, and the director goes out of his way to make us feel the hopelessness of his characters’ situation. Even the cinematography – beautiful as it is in some instances – soaks in a dreary palette, consuming the audience with the melancholy of the snow-swept mountains.
As one would expect from a Joe Carnahan film, the action is just as monumental as the picturesque backdrops. The plane crash is frantic and fierce, the most impressive I’ve seen since the one depicted in “LOST.” There is a chasm crossing reminiscent of the one in Cliffhanger, and at one point a character crashes into a tree in what is surely the most brutal and bone crunching depiction of such an act on film. I won’t go over each setpiece, but they’re all realistic and effective; Carnahan knows what looks good on screen, and he goes the extra mile to get it.
Neeson’s performance anchors the entire picture. There’s a subplot involving his character’s wife, and the actor adds an emotional heft that, if it were anyone else in this role, may not have translated well. Neeson seems to pull directly from his own life experience to reach this part of the performance (see his tragic family history regarding his own wife if you’re unfamiliar), and he effortlessly makes the quiet moments ring true. Conversely, he snarls his way through smoldering wreckage and dense forest alike as the self-imposed alpha male of the survivors, his perseverance alternately inspiring and angering his cohorts. At one point, he punctures the plane’s fuel tank and fills a thermos with gas; while he actually uses it to make torches later in the film, his character is such a hardass that it wouldn’t have been out of place if he growled and chugged that gas like a beer.
The supporting cast is full of mostly unrecognizable faces. Dermot Mulroney is the only name that I recall having seen before, and though he’s most best known for having a name oftentimes confused with actor Dylan McDermot, Mulroney was great in this movie. But the standout – aside from Neeson, of course – comes in actor Frank Grillo, who plays memorable psychopath John Diaz. (Grillo actually had a small role in Warrior, one of my favorite films of 2011.) It’s an unhinged performance full of bravado, and watching him react to his hubris was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film for me. Maybe it was the fact that they were essentially trapped in snow, but the supporting cast of The Grey seemed to hearken back to John Carpenter’s The Thing – a bunch of guys with different philosophies forced to band together due to an outrageous circumstance, battling paranoia and the elements at the same time.
The horror elements are also on display in the form of the wolves, terrifying creatures that serve as the Monsters of the film, capable of brutal attacks from any angle at any second. Thanks to some grisly kills early in the film – many of which involve loud jump scares – Carnahan puts the audience on edge for the entire movie. Since we’ve seen what the wolves are capable of, we never fully relax as the characters move through the forest, pausing to take shelter, sit around a fire, and occasionally chat about their personal ideologies. What once would have been a fairly normal campfire conversation becomes a ticking time bomb of tension and trepidation; like this entire movie, it’s very well-executed. (Imagine the bar scene from Inglourious Basterds, but with wolves instead of Nazis.)
At its core, The Grey is a simple genre exercise about man versus nature. Thanks to some excellent filmmaking, compelling character work, and dynamic action, it rises above convention and emerges as an entertaining and accomplished movie that stands among the best survival films ever made. Until next time…