By R. David
Published January 27, 2012
‘”The Grey” is one hell of a bleak film. Like the extreme set of circumstances that befall its protagonists, it is an adventure to be endured rather than enjoyed. Think a snowbound “Deliverance” with marauding, near-demonic wolves in place of hillbilly rapists. There is little levity – little hope – as the circumstance mount, making any sort of “happy ending” all but impossible. The film offers something of a catharsis for a few of its characters (and thereby for the audience), but it is of little consolation. That, I’m assuming, is precisely the point. It’s a ballsy move for what is ostensibly an action/adventure flick (it’s certainly being promoted as one); and ballsy is always a welcome thing in a time of rote, toothless, mainstream crowd-pleasers. But ballsy by itself does not equal perfection.
“The Grey” has a simple and inherently gripping story (as most truly effective thrillers tend to), unfortunately it stumbles when it tries to beef-up that simplicity or make grandiose statements about life and death, faith and love. These things should be implied in a story of survival rather than spelled-out so obviously and literally. There are also some impossible-to-ignore potholes that often threaten to derail the drama (and the emotional weight specific scenes are supposed to carry) completely.
As the film begins, a motley crew of roughneck oil-drillers are flying over the Alaskan wilderness when their plane suddenly spirals out of control and slams into the remote, snow-drenched countryside. All but a handful of the men survive, but they soon discover that surviving may not have been such a blessing as they face not only the harsh weather and lack of food, but soon find themselves being hunted by a gang of ravenous wolves. Luckily, one of the survivors is Ottway (Neeson), a sharp-shooter hired by the oil company to keep bears, wolves and other animal threats away from the refineries. Unfortunately, Ottway is suicidal after separating from his wife. He dreams of her in flashback, and the film is slow to reveal why they are no longer together (why they save the answer for the end as if its some sort of major twist, I’m not sure). In fact, each of the surviving riggers all have at least one demon they are wrestling with, all of which are revealed as the men argue, fight and bond throughout their ordeal. Thanks to his obvious survival skills and fearlessness of death, Ottway becomes the defacto leader of the group, a decision that does not sit well with some of the more prideful tough-guy riggers. They fight against the elements, the wolves and each other as they struggle to stay alive and maintain their humanity in the face of the mounting odds.
“The Grey” has a lot going for it, especially on a technical level. Credit must go to director Joe Carnahan, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, and their sound teams. Sitting in the theater you’d swear you could almost feel the harsh wind and blinding snow of the Alaskan wilderness slapping you in the face. The wolves and the plane crash FX are also well done and convincing. And Neeson, as usual, makes for a strong presence, although he could play this role in his sleep by this point. Less effective are the film’s more generic elements. The men squabbling, then bonding, then getting picked off one by one is predictable stuff. It’s all made harder to take as each man reveals a backstory chalk full tragedy or regret. First we hate them, then we feel sorry them, then they die. That’s just lazy and manipulative writing on director Carnahan’s (who also wrote the screenplay) part. Give the actors (who include Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, James Badge Dale, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson) credit, they sell the stuff about as well as anyone could reasonably expect; but that doesn’t make it feel any less derivative.
And then there are the wolves. As I said, they are technically well conceived, but Carnahan turns them into a gang of Freddy Krugers. They aren’t just starving and see the men as food, or protecting their turf because they view them as a threat. No, they are a crew of serial killers; hunting these men down at any cost, following them through the roughest terrain and at considerable loss of their own kind. And not only are they really committed to their cause, but they apparently have super powers. In one scene, the remaining men have to scale across a huge chasm with a hundred foot drop and only trees on the other side. They go to all sorts of great lengths figuring out how to cross it and then return to ground once on the other side because, well, the wolves are on their tails, right? Well, the first guy to make it across is immediately attacked by the wolves. How does that work? Are the wolves impervious to huge drops? Do they defy gravity? Or did they just know a short cut?
“The Grey” is full of laugh-out-lot goobers like this that. While it is the sort of movie you need to suspend a little disbelief (they all look pretty good and are pretty mobile for just walking out of a plane crash, and how they haven’t succumbed to frost bite or any other number of element-related fatalities is pretty miraculous), still some of the coincidences and leaps of logic border on insulting. The climax, for instance, has Neeson surrounded by half a dozen wolves. Do they all just charge him and rip him to shreds (they have been chasing after this guy for days after all)? No. Apparently it was decided amongst the wolves at a meeting or something that only the alpha wolf gets to kill Liam Neeson. Okay, fine, I get it, the two top guys in their respective crews are gonna face off. That still makes no sense, but sure, typically a film’s hero takes on the biggest, nastiest villain of the bunch at the end. I can accept that. But does alphawolf charge Neeson at first sight as a wolf would? No. Like brawlers in a ring, they have a stare down which lasts long enough for Neeson have another flashback to his wife, reveal what the deal was with her to the audience, flashback to his childhood, recite a poem his father wrote, and create a Freddy Kruger glove out of electrical tape and travel sized vodka bottles. That’s some code of conduct these wolves have, letting their prey get all their guilt off their chest and create a weapon in hopes of ensuring a fair fight before pouncing. The only thing missing in that scene was one of them slapping the other in the face with a dueling glove and each taking ten paces. And that’s the last scene! The thing the film leaves you with!
The film is also rife with hamfisted ruminations on life and death, love and spirituality. None of it is particularly profound or original. You have to give the movie credit though for trying to be thinking-man’s action picture. It’s just, if you want to play up the brainy, thoughtful angle, what’s with all the laughable leaps of logic? Then again, without these cornball moments, there would be almost no levity at all in “The Grey”. It is one of those movies where people with already shitty lives have more shitty things happen to them (in this case getting eaten by wolves) and then die. Any catharsis or spiritual redemption they experience comes in the face of death, which means it’s too late, which is, you know, just damn depressing.
“The Grey” certainly has a tone it is striving for. Just like the haunting and unforgivingly cold and desolate wasteland the characters are stranded in, the film is bleak. It gets that right. If you can ignore some of the goofier and generic script elements, can handle a film with little in the way of uplift, and just want to see a well-crafted survival of the fittest tale, “The Grey” will probably work for you on a simple visceral level.
2 and a half stars out of 4.