Instead of being a stupid brainless action movie it transcends the genre and becomes something else.
Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is an exhausting film. I mean that in a good way. This film involves characters going from one dire scene to another for 2 hours. The film doesn’t cheat its audience on how bleak situations can get. I admired Carnahan’s choice to not hold back. One of the best scenes of the film involves the death of a man that felt so true to life that it took my breath away. I’ve never been in the same room as anyone while someone has passed on, so I can’t say for sure how real the scene is portrayed. But the scene, felt very, VERY real.
The Grey is a very simple movie. Men board a plan in the Alaskan oil fields heading to Anchorage. The plane crashes during a massive blizzard. The survivors must fight all the elements, including a pack of vicious wolves that seem to have a serious problem with strangers in their territory. Carnahan and his screenwriting partner (Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who also wrote the short story the film is based on) must have realized how much this kind of movie has been done before because they add some nice details to the film that really flesh out characters in a nice way.
Liam Neeson, who seems to be having a career renaissance as an action hero as of late even though he will turn 60 soon, stars as Ottway. Ottway’s job is very clear. He is to protect men in the field who repair oil lines from wolves that seem to have an appetite for humans. He sits hundreds of yards away watching and waiting. When a wolf makes a mad dash to catch some dinner he shoots them without remorse. When we meet Ottway, he is near suicide. An ever evolving backstory that runs throughout the film fills us in on certain details of his life.
What I liked about the Ottway character the most was how much respect he has for the wolves. I personally don’t think he liked killing them, but I do think he is a man who believes in kill or be killed. This becomes pretty clear later on as the film presses on.
Ottway wakes up after the plane crashes and immediately imposes his survival knowledge on the rest of the men. He knows what to do, he doesn’t panic. He becomes the group’s leader by showing leadership and initiative. The others are shell shocked and scared. But Ottway is not scared or at least very good at not showing it.
One of the best things the movie does is show how packs work. One pack is obviously the wolves, but the other is the men. It’s funny I didn’t pick that up the first time I watched the film. Wolves are a lot smarter than I think most people give them credit for. When working in packs they are extremely deadly, they kind of reminded me of Velociraptors from Jurassic Park. They test their prey, often teasing them at times. There are scenes were the wolves I think are purposely installing fear into the men they stalk before they do the actual killing. Now that is scary.
The movie was kind of sold to and bought by the audience as Liam Neeson vs. wolves. Yeah, I can I see that, but the movie is so much more than that. A lot of the film is Neeson plotting the survival of his group as the wolf who leads the other pack hunts them. It sounds silly talking about a wolf being smart enough to ‘plot’ to kill, it really does, but Carnahan is smart enough to trust his audience to go along with it and he presents the idea very well.
What was most impressive about The Grey was how it presented an age old story of survival. Instead of being a stupid brainless action movie it transcends the genre and becomes something else. It becomes a meditation on what lengths man must go to in order to survive. I don’t think I would survive the conditions the film presents. I can’t say that for sure because I’ve never had to. The film asks us as an audience to look at ourselves and wonder if we were in this situation could we do what we had to do to survive. Most people would probably say no. But if you’re in the wild, freezing, no food to eat and being chased by blood thirsty wolves I’d bet my bottom dollar you would kill to survive. When we are pushed, we push back.
Carnahan presents three dimensional characters who have thoughts, who say things not to please a story but because they have something meaningful to say. The men have hopes and desires. They want to see their wives, children, girlfriends again. They aren’t all about killing and being ‘men’. A lot of them are not as tough as the first seem. The wild breaks them. Neeson’s character in particular has a fantastic backstory that is shown in small bits at various points in the film. The final revelation in that backstory arrives at a perfect moment in the present time near the end of the film and will break the heart of even the manliest of man watching the film.
The Grey feels very succinct with its scenes. A lot of them are straight to the point. Deaths aren’t being foretold within the scene. They just happen, Carnahan is not here to mess around. One great scene in particular involves men running through a massive blizzard trying to make it to a tree line of a forest to escape the rabid pack of wolves. We know as an audience one of these guys is not making it. Sure enough the straggler of the group falls to the ground and out of the heavy wind and snow come the wolves to claim him. He has no chance. He is ripped to shreds. There is no build up to this. Carnahan shows him falling and as fast as he hits the ground the wolves are already on him. The men scream at them and try to run back to help him, but their feet can’t go fast enough through the snow. As soon as the attack begins, it’s practically done. The wolves drag him back into the unkown.
Carnahan made a film nearly a decade ago called Narc. The film showed Carnahan had lots of promise and a lot of talent. Since then he has made Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team (also with Neeson). I thought both were terrible. I (wrongly) wrote off Carnahan as a sellout. Both films are by the numbers and at times extremely nauseating. I’m here to say that he is back. He shows maturity with The Grey. He doesn’t pull any punches with his audience and treats them with respect. Most people don’t like being treated like a child when watching a movie, Carnahan knows this. The film is like the weather it presents, it’s blunt and very unforgiving. The Grey does not disappoint. This is one of the best films of the year.