John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is an anguished loner employed as a marksman for a petroleum pumping facility somewhere in the north; his primary function is to shoot down any wild animals that appear around the station. He and a few other nondescript employees board a small plane to take them on leave, when suddenly the plane begins to rumble so violently that it just has to be more than mere turbulence. Yes, something goes incredibly wrong with the airliner causing it to crashland, depositing its passengers into the middle of the snowy Alaskan wilderness.
Ottway awakens to realize that he survived the traumatizing experience, as well as a half dozen other factory employees not that far from where he is. Sure, they are all still alive, but what can these people possibly do? The plane’s phones are no longer in operational condition, food is sparse, the temperature is subzero, human civilization is nowhere in sight, and perhaps the most life-threatening of all, they appear to have hurtled into the wrong part of Alaska; a territory entirely populated by vicious wolves with an voracious hunger for human meat. This sounds like the very definition of a ‘deadlock.’
Judging by this concept and the promotion ads for the film, one might expect it to be a run-of-the-mill action flick “for manly men” pitting “Taken” star Liam Neeson up against a ravenous pack of wild animals for two full hours. While that is at least partially true, I think that would be severely trivializing the beauty, brilliance and profundity that “The Grey” has to offer. It is not just a good movie, it is a GREAT movie. One that revels in the essences that make up compelling action thrillers, but one that also poses some pretty challenging questions about life, loss, spirituality and death. Simply put, it is the antithesis to Joe Carnahan’s previous directorial work, which included such mindless drivel as “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team.”
First off, allow me to get this out of the way upfront: this is most likely NOT the type of movie you might expect it to be. If you walk in hoping for some cool face-offs between Neeson and the wolves…well, there are a few, but probably not enough to meet expectations. This is neither “Taken” in the snow, nor is it “Unknown” with wolves. If I had to approximate the ballpark that this movie necessitates, its closest thematic equal would probably be 2009’s “The Road,” an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel about a father and son struggling to survive in a barren and decadent new world after an unexplained cataclysmic event takes place and wipes out most of the world’s population and resources.
This comparison isn’t all that much of a stretch, as the whole film works in itself to be a parable about survival and perseverance in the face of imminent doom. Ottway and the other six men must use any means necessary in order to defeat both nature and beast, which essentially comes down to the basic wilderness explorer strategies taught in cub scout training…only elevated to the single most extreme scenario possible. Ottway takes initiative as the leader of the convoy, as he knows more about the habits of the crazed behemoths they are up against. He tells his men that the creatures will be less likely to strike them if they are below the tree line, so naturally under his jurisdiction, they laboriously journey through the seemingly endless desert of snow toward the forest.
The wolves themselves are formidable opponents to be sure. They are endowed with razor sharp teeth ideal for cutting flesh, their beady eyes glow radiantly and forebodingly in the night, their pitch-black fur acts as natural camouflage, and they always arrive just in time to catch their prey with their pants around their ankles (literally in one case). They lack the discernment and compassion of humans, and their malevolence knows no bounds; if they are hungry (which is apparently all the time), they’ll have no reservations about eating you right up. Wisely, the director keeps these malicious entities mostly in shadows, silhouettes or in the distance where they can vaguely be seen, leaving the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks. In fact, sometimes “The Grey” struck me as sort of a slasher movie when the wolves would descend viciously upon their victims, systematically killing them off one by one.
In any other case, I might’ve included the names of the other six men who survived the plane crash and the actors that performed these roles. But honestly, these guys are placed in a life-or-death scenario where knowing each other’s names is the least of their worries. None of them ever communicated with each other while on duty, and conversational dialogue is still relatively curt and sparse between them even when they are all they have left. Their one and only priority is to stay alive and not get devoured. Quite literally, it is more than halfway through the movie before any of them exchange anything resembling a formal introduction with one another.
Yet the film grants these characters individuality. Though they are ultimately striving for the same goal, they are their own people. They have emotions, problems, fears, beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, outlooks on life, and families of their own. All of them came from somewhere, which makes it even more tragic when the audience is forced to watch them become engulfed by the wolves or suffer from any number of other unfortunate circumstances organic to their location. But never is the violence excessive or exploitative. It is inherent to the story and is devastating to watch. A tense, thrilling, absorbing and sometimes unnerving viewing experience from start to finish, “The Grey” is as stark and uncompromising as the icy terrain it takes place in.
Listen, it is January. January is notoriously regarded as the worst month of the year to release films, besides a few last minute award season contenders. There are never that many passable movies to come along during this month of cinematic bowel evacuation. We’ve already witnessed the unbridled idiocy that was “The Devil Inside." Though once in a while, there will be one diamond in the rough that will outshine all the others in terms of quality, vision and scope during an otherwise dreadful month at the movies. “The Grey” is not only a surprise; it is practically a blessing in disguise. Please go support it at the earliest possible convenience.