Leave it to the bleakest of movies to be about Faith. The meaning and purpose of Faith in a higher power to deliver one from suffering comes up often in director Joe Carnahan’s absorbing wilderness thriller The Grey as its beleaguered plane-crash survivors must fend off a pack of arctic wolves hell-bent on picking off them off one by one. Principally, Faith is on the mind of Ottway (Liam Neeson), a marksman hired by an oil rigging outfit in the snowbound wilderness and a loner patterned after the classic noir mold — that is, self-reliant and goaded on through life by his own private agenda.
Ottway is haunted by thoughts of a woman he still loves and with whom he has no hope of reuniting. He wanders his territory, rifle in hand, protecting the oil riggers from predator wolves who’ve encroached onto the company’s land. But after the plane ferrying Ottway and his fellow ragtag crew of bedraggled oil workers crashes on a desolate plain, it’s the humans who now find themselves the trespassers in the wolves’ domain. With no help forthcoming, the survivors must trudge the indefinite distance from the crash site to civilization, across forbidding, wind-blasted expanse and wilderness forest, all the while falling prey to wolves with a newfound taste for human flesh.
Ottway assumes the role of the group’s leader. He’s no more familiar with the terrain than the others, but he is the closest the men have to a wilderness expert. That’s not to say there isn’t dissent in the ranks: The ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo) mocks Ottway’s attempts to find safety and even the very idea that the group has any chance of making it out of their predicament alive. A little of Diaz goes a long way though — Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (on whose short story The Grey is based) err in packing in too much of Diaz’s generally cliched shows of grandstanding at the expense of developing a more nuanced chemistry among the men. As a result, the men — among them the sensitive Hendricks (Dallas Roberts), the companionable Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the gentle giant and token minority Burke (Nonso Anozie) and the young punk Flannery (Joe Anderson) — are little more than pieces in the screenplay’s easy-to-fit puzzle box of character dynamics. In various tense conversations and campfire monologues, they reveal just enough to humanize themselves before each meets his grisly end in the next man vs. wolf standoff. Here is where The Grey cannot measure up to superior survivalist adventures like Flight of the Phoenix, The Great Escape, The Wages of Fear, Le Trou and so forth; the latter films benefitted from finely tuned and differentiated supporting characters, each one adding color and depth to the ensemble, making our investment in their go-for-broke scenarios that much deeper.
The Grey is a lesser achievement and might have been standard-issue B-movie fare were it not for Liam Neeson, who’s towering presence and gravitas turn the movie into a worthy study of heartbreak, courage and mortality. As resourceful and commanding as Ottway is, he is also a broken, desperate man with the barest wisp of regard for God. And, in one of the movie’s most nakedly honest and wrenching scenes — he rails at the heavens, daring God to intervene in his plight. Most startling in this scene isn’t Neeson’s acting chops — they’re considerable — but Carnahan’s choice to insert a reverse shot of a blank, impassive sky. He could have shot this moment entirely as a close-up on Ottoway, a statement of his encroaching madness, but he stages it as a two-character exchange, albeit with a second character remaining mute, a mystery. The result is a powerful, intimate spiritual plea, something we rarely see in this — or any — Hollywood genre nowadays.
Indeed, The Grey is a rarity in important ways. For one, this is a decidedly bleak film, damn bleak — one that goes against the grain of the dominant Hollywood instinct for last-minute rescues, miracles and uplift. It’s not nihilistic exactly, but it’s not feel-good either. The film maintains a brave existential detachment in tone, a kind of Camus-esque acceptance of the brutality of fate as demonstrated in one scene in which the camera simply holds on a character over a single take, one that lasts for what feels like an eternity, as he resigns himself to death.
From what I just said, The Grey might seem like too much of a downer. But it has ample rewards too. Aside from Neeson’s top-caliber performance (one that’s on par with or surpasses the best performances in any given year), the movie’s got several excellent set pieces, from the solidly terrifying plane crash (though, eliciting terror from turbulence is among the suspense genre’s more delightfully simple tricks) to the series of deadly ambushes by the wolves and one white-knuckle, high-altitude scene of characters clambering across a gorge on a tenuous rope. And, while silver linings are in short supply here, what The Grey ultimately offers is something far richer — it offers a chance to become involved with one man’s search for inner strength. How rewarding you find that will depend perhaps on your own search for the same.
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Joe Anderson, Anne Openshaw, Ben Bray, Nonso Anozie