This was the beginning of my experience with Joe Carnahan’s ‘The Grey’, a relentless and uncompromising thriller that has been unfairly marketed as a B action film with Liam Neeson punching wolves. I will not warn you away from it, as it is an exquisitely shot, superbly acted and absorbing journey, but know this; it’s not ‘entertainment’ in the traditional sense. For those with seasonal depression, you may want to head into a theater showing ‘The Artist’.
Neeson, that patron saint of surly Irish loners in the movies, plays John Ottway, a rugged immigrant marksman who shoots wolves for an oil drilling company. Ottway gets a chance to put those skills –and others– to the test when his plane crashes into the wilds of Alaska and he and the surviving oil workers must contend with a hungry pack of wolves. That is the basic shape of the plot, but it doesn’t account for the grim nature of the film.
The crash is devestating, killing all but seven of the men. The pack of grey wolves shows up almost immediately, giving the remainder no time to plan for their survival in the unforgiving cold. Ottway rises to the occasion as their leader, mostly because he’s more experienced but also because there’s a natural sense of authority about him and a feeling that he has nothing to lose. Ottway organizes the men and gets them on the move, keeping them nestled among the trees.
Although he’s a somber, brooding sort he becomes a kind of makeshift commander and priest. At one point he gently helps a dying man make that final transition with grace and dignity. When events don’t demand that the group be fighting for their lives, Neeson bonds with the men on a deeper level. Together, they challenge the notion of whether a loving, sovreign God would allow them to perish in such a predicament, and openly question if there’s anything left for them but the indiscriminant, pitiless jaws of mother nature.
Let’s return to Jack London for a moment. ‘The Grey’ has all the earmarks of a survival story like ‘Call of the Wild’ or ‘To Build a Fire’ and in Ottoway and his doomed cohorts, Carnahan finds protagonists who are very similar to London’s men at the mercy of nature. They are working-class outcasts who do a job very few would ever want to do, and they are minimalized and trivialized by the company they work for. Out in the wild, they are left with nothing but their instincts and even those seem unlikely of saving them. There’s something real and relatable about each of them; Carnahan does a good job of distinguishing their faces, often captured in extreme close-up so that the world shrinks to the hot breath and terrified eyes of men huddled around a protective fire.
Carnahan makes a significant leap as a director here, manuevering the obvious macho overtones of the premise with an immediacy that diffuses the inevitable outcome. The cinematography is stunning and suffocating; you can feel the chill in every scene and the cabal of wolves look almost poetic as they cascade down frosty forest paths towards the fearful men. Ottway’s reminiscences to a happier time with his loving wife are poignant and effective, and create a dramatic tug-of-war between the dire situation in the present and the sanctuary of the past. Both sides of this coin are held together by Neeson, who makes Ottway an interesting and rather troubled character. We would be tempted to follow him through any number of scenarios, but for this one he seems perfectly suited and every scene is escalated because of his involvement. This is Oscar calibre work and it isn’t surprising to hear talk of re-releasing The Grey later in the year to facilitate awards’ recognition.
It is easy to describe the The Grey without touching on its impact as a drama. We don’t usually see the likes of such a film in the January release schedule, often clotted with dopey comedies, horror films and second-tier action goofiness. Thanks to Neeson’s nuanced perfornace and Carnahan’s cunning sense of structure, it manifests itself as something more than a matinee adventure pic. The late-in-the-game career shift that has seen Neeson playing pragmatic men of action will accommodate this one as the likely peak of that period. I suspect that the scenes of Ottway outfitting himself with broken bottle shards to take the wolves head-on will stick in the cultural mindset for some time to come.
Some audience members may be less than thrilled with the ending, expecting a different kind of resolution and forgetting that such stories told by London and Hemmingway concluded similarly. With The Grey, it’s not so much that the movie ends as it runs out of film to contain its events. We leave the theater with that brutal drama still playing out on the icy stage in our mind.