The Grey is a thoughtful, tough-minded little tale of survival and attrition that sets its sights a bit further than its firepower takes it.
Its assets include a sweeping Alaskan canvas as breathtaking as it is punishing, a consciousness of mortality and meaning rare in an action film, an uncompromising story-arc—and, crucially, the haggard face and haunted eyes of Liam Neeson, who balances indomitable toughness and brittle brokenness better than perhaps any other Hollywood star today. Neeson plays John Ottway, a burned-out wolver employed by an oil company to protect the drilling team from wolves in northern Alaska.
Its liabilities include some plodding dialogue and lapses in plausibility at times bordering on the perverse, particularly with regard to an almost mystical wolf pack dogging the ragtag band of humans stranded in their territory by a plane crash in a blizzard. One of the characters wonders, in a quiet moment, whether the odds against their having survived against such odds suggests that they were “meant” to live. By the climactic scene’s ironic twist, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the universe has been toying with them and was out to get them from the start.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that God is either absent or sadistic. Certainly He seems distant, if not absent. Ottway acknowledges his lack of faith with matter-of-fact regret: He says he’d like to believe, but can’t—unsurprisingly so, given what we learn about his life history. Later, in a moment of desperation, he calls out to a God who may or may not be there, as countless desperate men before him have done, and not gotten the sign or miracle they hoped for. Writer-director Joe Carnahan, on the rebound from back-to-back action schlockfests The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, clearly wishes to reassert himself as a filmmaker of vision. His second film, Narc, was well regarded by most critics. Like all his films, it seems, The Grey is unsparing with violence and profanity, but this time around Carnahan seems more concerned to find the humanity amid the dehumanizing circumstances.
Ironically, the story opens with Ottway contemplating suicide before throwing him and a half dozen other men into a grueling fight for survival in which the easiest thing would be to lay down and die. The shattered fuselage of the crashed plane offers scant protection from the elements to the surviving members of the drilling team, a crew of roughnecks of varying backgrounds. One, an ex-con played by Frank Grillo (Warrior), rankles at Ottway’s natural leadership and repeatedly challenges him before being put down like any challenger to the alpha male. In the first minutes after the crash, in perhaps the film’s most striking moment, Ottway offers a mortally injured crash victim what he can: the unvarnished truth, couched with calm reassurance and gentle solidarity. Shortly after this, the survivors have their first encounter with the wolves, and realize that they may be dangerously close to the den (about which more anon).
It soon becomes apparent that the survivors have no good options. Staying with the plane is their best hope of weathering the elements and of being found and rescued. Yet at the crash site they will soon run out of both food and fuel. When the blizzard dies down, they can make out a fringe of trees on the horizon. Trees mean fuel, and perhaps a better hope to defend themselves from the wolves long enough to escape their territory. The elements are all familiar: limited resources and limited options; debates about how to proceed, how decisions should be made and who if anyone is in charge; the primal exegencies of survival; and, somewhat less commonly in an action movie these days, larger questions about God, fate and life after death.
One man, in a scene reminiscent of last year’s Cowboys & Aliens, expresses discomfort about leaving the bodies of the crash victims without “saying some words,” and stumbles through a prayer. Later, though, there is another death, and Ottway pointedly asks the other man he whether would like to say some words, again. Ottway’s own concern is more practical: He collects the wallets of the victims, hoping to bring them to civilization for their families. In the absence of religious ritual, the wallets become almost a sort of sacred trust; with their pictures of loved ones and the memories they represent, they are all that is left of the victims’ identities.
The circumstances are dire. Perhaps too dire. The wolves are not only extraordinarily large and powerful and ferocious, but uncannily cunning as well. In one sequence the remaining humans go to astonishing lengths to move on from the wolves’ territory—but as soon as one of them missteps, the wolves are right there to pick him off. For the record, a review of the film at the International Wolf Center blog calls The Grey a “monster movie,” adding that it’s about “as accurate a portrayal of wolf behavior as King Kong was about gorillas.” In real life, wolves are almost always timid around humans. Wolf attacks on humans are rare, and almost always on children or, more rarely, women. Wolves that do attack humans are nearly always habituated to humans in proximity to human dwellings or else rabid.
The idea of a wolf pack deep in the wild harrying a group of several able-bodied men and picking them off one by one is unrealistic, though the movie’s biggest gaffe is the conceit of “the den” as a sort of established home base for the entire pack, littered with the carcasses of past kills. In reality, a den is a temporary home for birthing mothers in the spring. There are also serious questions, as I’ve noted before, about the whole “alpha/omega” social theory of wolves. Can we accept those conceits for the sake of the movie? After all, King Kong is generally considered a pretty good flick. Well, yes and no. King Kong is overtly escapist fantasy, while The Grey seeks to be a grimly realistic survival movie. I appreciate that unlike last winter’s nihilistic tale of attrition, the execrable Sanctum, The Grey doesn’t cheapen life and death, and shows some interest in the big questions. But stacking the deck too improbably against the survivors is as damaging to suspension of disbelief as benevolent coincidences ushering a happy ending.
The film’s last word belongs to Ottway’s father, who wrote a scrap of fatalistic, defiant verse that provides Ottway with the closest thing to a credo he has:
Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
To live and die on this day…
Live and die on this day…
It’s a limited perspective for a movie that shows some interest in the bigger picture. It is possible to discern a ray of grace in the darkness that surrounds Ottway. Like the real world, the world of The Grey doesn’t oblige us either to acknowledge God or to deny Him. If we choose, we can hear His voice speaking a word of reassurance. If we don’t, the movie doesn’t press the point. In the end, though, it’s on this world that The Grey has its eyes.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.