Joe Carnahan’s The Grey falls in line with an intimate, frequently grueling genre of films that serve as potent reminders of why humankind builds cities. Pitting eternally grizzled survivor Liam Neeson and a dwindling crew of compatriots against a vicious, unrelenting nature, the film gets off to a strong start before mooring itself in thinly sketched character development. It’s a major departure for Carnahan, whose last two films, “The A-Team” and “Smokin’ Aces,” have been bombastic mid and big-budget affairs, a man vs. nature film that achieves surprising subtlety despite a script (by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) that sticks to proven thrills.
Neeson continues this sustainably kick-ass portion of his career, playing Ottway, handy with a sniper rifle and willfully stranded out in the middle of ice-cold nowhere. Surrounded by and working to protect what a stereotypical aristocrat would deem human refuse, Ottway is losing the will to live, and fast. When a routine flight to Anchorage goes down, the hunter and a host of survivors must fend off the cold, a lack of food and a vicious pack of wolves. A trek to the treeline may be a brief grasp at safety but will they all make it there in one piece?
This is Neeson’s film and he makes Ottway a soured shell of a man, smoldering with fury at a world that has done his wrong. Carnahan’s reliance on wordless imagery is paramount to the film’s success but also a crutch that shapes Ottway’s background without much effort. Luckily, with the fine and commanding actor playing up his survivalist skills in a vast, treacherous and unwelcoming frontier, The Grey succeeds in moving you, making each death worthy of reflection.
The survivors (including a bespectacled Dermot Mulroney and an unruly Frank Grillo) are hardly compelling but are nevertheless granted monologues that reinforce their humanity — the act of collecting wallets from bodies strewn about the wreckage morphs into a powerful metaphor for memory and paying respects. One can’t help wishing for a film that focuses unrelentingly on Neeson, but that film would move at a much slower clip, as The Grey rarely lets up in the first act, with Carnahan achieving skillful tension and the production utilizing specific and effective sound design to spotlight the uninhabitable environment.
Frankly, it’s not a film that demands much introspection — openly emotional and masculine to an extreme — The Grey doesn’t flaunt exposed machismo but watches it collapse when faced with most certain death. It’s a strong concept to take on and Carnahan runs with it as best he can. The ending will no doubt infuriate those lubricated by a misleading marketing campaign, but despite having a negative reaction at first viewing, post-screening thoughts led me to like it more and more. The CGI/animatronics used to work the wolves are serviceable and the film is appropriately gruesome but kudos to Carnahan for avoiding money shots of broken, chewed up bodies. There’s a higher purpose at play here. The Grey, for most of its running time, acts as a constant reminder of the incredible thin, fragile fault between life and death. Too many will slip in on a whim. Some will live to fight another day.