Review: The Grey (2012)

There’s nothing quite like being blown away by a movie.

Going into The Grey, I was expecting just another winter action movie starring Liam Neeson, similar to Taken and Unknown but with Neeson fighting wolves instead of villainous Europeans. I expected Neeson to be a badass, the wolves to be ferocious, and the film to be a minor enjoyment in the midst of the winter movie wasteland. The film I saw was nothing like any of these expectations. Instead, what I saw was a harrowing account of survival and mortality when faced with the unrelenting nature of the wild.

The Grey follows a group of oil field workers in Alaska. After boarding a plane bound for Anchorage, the plane crashes leaving only seven men alive in the middle of the snowbound wilderness. Ottway (Neeson), a man whose job at the oil field was to protect the workers from wild animals, takes charge and organizes the survivors against the cold and the vicious, aggressive pack of wolves that inhabit the area. The plot boils down to men trying to survive one day longer, against the cold and the predators that stalk the area.

There’s a scene that takes place shortly after Ottway regroups with the survivors where he calms a man with a fatal wound, bluntly telling him that he is going to die and that he should accept his fate. This provides an important lesson for the rest of the film. In The Grey, death is inevitable and how the various men deal with it defines them as individuals.

The film opens with hardboiled narration from Ottway in which he describes the inhabitants of this Alaskan oil operation as men “unfit for mankind.” These men are seen as incompatible with civilization, but as the events of the film show, they are helpless in the freedom of the wild. They cannot survive, and it is only by cooperating that they can prolong their lives — makeshift civilization saves them for another day.

The atmosphere of the film is overwhelming. The cold blows off the screen and freezes you in your seat. A blizzard hasn’t seemed this chilling since John Carpenter’s The Thing.

In some aspects The Grey is a classic survival thriller, concerned with the nitty-gritty of surviving in the wilderness: finding water and food, bundling up against the cold, finding shelter, and setting up defenses against the wolves. In other aspects it’s a dark drama exploring mortality, following men facing death.

It succeeds enormously as both.

As a thriller The Grey has a few scenes that are more visceral and invigorating than most films. The plane crash sequence is terrifying. Carnahan strips down the scene to its essentials: no music, no editing cues to let you know the disaster is coming — nothing but the terror on the men’s faces and the excellent sound design to let you know what’s happening. He puts you onboard that metal tube as it tears apart in the air while hurtling forward at hundreds of miles an hour. As well, a scene in which the men have to cross a canyon on a makeshift rope is paralyzing, especially for acrophobic viewers like myself.

As a drama, The Grey is even more interesting. It explores masculinity through its almost exclusively male cast and the way in which it dismantles ideas of how men are supposed to react in extreme situations. More importantly, it explores mortality, symbolized by the wolves that stalk the characters unrelentingly for the entire film.

It would be too easy and too unfair to call The Grey a movie merely concerned with men fighting wolves. The wolves are obviously important, but they are merely an extension of the unavoidable fact of nature: everything dies. By being portrayed as mostly specters throughout the film, existing on the peripheries, always present through their howls and glowing eyes, but rarely entering the scene except to dispatch the characters, the wolves act as metaphors for death. This isn’t a particularly insightful comment, but it seems a very intentional metaphor on the part of the filmmakers and deserves attention. Thus, The Grey is not really a film about wolves at all.

To bring these points home, The Grey needed great acting and luckily it delivers. Liam Neeson’s performance is astounding. It is so much more than merely another badass role he’s tailored his career to in recent years. The supporting cast is equally excellent. None of them are painted as anything less than individuals. Carnahan gives them plenty of focus and honest character moments where we can ponder them and their situation.

These moments of conversation and inquiry — of puzzling over the unfairness of their situation and the prospects of life after death — may seem a little blunt, but the situation these men are facing is blunt. Death is blunt. Tragedy is blunt. There is nothing subtle about freezing to death or being tore apart by wolves.

Every decision these men make ultimately comes down to accepting one of two options: give up and die, or fight to put off death another moment. In essence, continuing to live is only giving these men more opportunity to think of their inevitable deaths, and thus, prolongs their death, not their life. In every situation where these characters ask their questions, the actors and the script rise to the occasion, and make the conversations more than just obligatory back-stories, but profound explorations of the nature of life and death. The men gain no easy answers because there are no easy answers to be given them. The Grey understands this and refuses to give cheap clarification or resolution.

Despite its January release and misleading marketing campaign, The Grey is one of the best genre movies I’ve seen in a while. It asks tough questions and has an overwhelming dread to it. For a movie about Liam Neeson fighting wolves, it is uncompromising, challenging, and extremely engrossing. There are few films as unrelenting.

The Grey (2012)

Directed by Joe Carnahan; written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers; starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Ben Bray, and James Badge Dale.

9 out of 10