The marketing for The Grey has teased the epic battle of Liam Neeson vs. wolves. And why wouldn’t you? The 58-year-old-Neeson, it seems, has turned into any studio’s go-to guy for nonsensical action flicks (Taken, Unknown, The A-Team) – and people love it. So here comes The Grey, a man vs. wild battle of epic proportions, where Neeson punches out wolves and leads his men to safety! Or…is it?
The answer, surprisingly, is no. The Grey features action scenes and those nasty wolves have their fair share of screen time. But ultimately, this isn’t man-on-wolf-type stuff. This is a story of man’s struggle to combat not just nature, not just the elements, but himself and his fellow men. It’s a sort of thinking man’s action picture, the type that’s more focused on characters and a story than mindless carnage – a surprising statement, since the film comes from Joe Carnahan, the director of The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces. And in an even bigger surprise, The Grey probably would have been better off with some extra action. It’s a good film – but at points, it gets too arty for its own good.
The Grey starts with a bleak shot of somewhere, Alaska. It’s patently clear from the first shot on that we are in for a bleak and brutal movie. There’s no sunshine and barely any optimism throughout. This is a far-off corner of the world, drowned in isolation and depression. When Ottway (Neeson), our lead character, sticks a shotgun in his mouth within the first ten minutes, we start to get an idea of just how bad it’s going to get. Ottway doesn’t pull the trigger – ever a fighter, he decides he has something to live before. But he can’t possibly just how much he’ll need that inspiration until the next day – when Ottway’s plane home crashes during a blizzard out in the middle of nowhere. There’s no contrived method of losing cell phone service here, no miraculous descent in an uninhabited area – this is somewhere in a blizzard in the forests of Alaska. Forget about phones. Forget about rescue crews. Forget about humans. Ottway – and six other survivors of the crash – are alone.
Alone, that is, except for a pack of wolves. A hungry, threatened pack of wolves.
Luckily for the crew, Ottway’s a wolf expert. His job is security for an oil drilling team – security against wolves, bears and any other big game that might threaten the area. So he knows what their every move means and what the best methods of survival are. But it’s not just wolves Ottway is facing – there’s tension within the group thanks to Diaz (Frank Grillo), who fancies himself the alpha male of the human pack. And did I mention the blizzard? It’s freezing cold and the men have only days to live in their current condition before Mother Nature herself claims victory. Add all that together, and the group’s chance of survival is bleak.
Make no mistake – the wolves are real, and their presence is frightening. The Jaws method is an effective one here – show the beast(s) as little as you need to, and make them scary while off-screen. The Grey is not a horror movie, but it is a tense and terrifying one. Marc Streitenfeld’s score and Masanobu Takayangi’s cinematography help contribute to the atmosphere of foreboding. It’s a film soaked in an atmosphere of gritty realism. The Grey is clearly a much different film than Chronicle, the first part of my double feature from yesterday, but both are effective in their portrayals of realism for an otherwise improbable or impossible situation. There’s nothing science-fiction about The Grey – it could theoretically happen, but the odds of the film’s scenario are quite miniscule. But what if a group of seven beaten-down men found themselves in the midst of snow, wolves, and a vast wilderness of nothing? How would they react? I imagine quite like they do in The Grey, with Ottway and Diaz staging a fascinating battle for control of their own pack. Frank Grillo as Diaz particularly shines in an otherwise largely forgettable cast. It’s forgettable mainly because this is Neeson’s show. His beaten-down, weathered self is an easy character to root for, and he’s at his very best here.
But back to that lack of action. This is not a film that needs to be overly subtle. It’s not a film that needs to be overly artsy. We’re here to see Liam Neeson really battle a wolf every now and then. That’s not meant to be a simplistic, dumbed-down version of things – but The Grey tries to batter you over the head with big ideas and faith and philosophy. We get it. Cut back on the big ideas and give me an action scene or two, more, boys. The Grey isn’t a tough one to predict, either. Not all seven of the survivors make it to the end (hardly a spoiler) and it’s not difficult to figure out who’s going to bite the dust next.
But while The Grey is much more good than bad, just wait until you get to the ending. There’s a scene after the credits – but don’t bother sticking around. Just read for yourself what happens on the Internet after leaving the theatre. In fact, to save yourself the frustration, you might want to just duck out five minutes before the end of the film.
Ultimately, though, this is a moving film, one that hinges on two strong central performances, a generally strong script, and a bleak yet beautiful look. The Grey is the anti-action movie – it accepts death as a reality and forces its characters to consider its effects. There are few ways out here, no deus ex machinas lurking around every corner, just snow and beasts and danger. Though I’d take more wolf-punching in a heartbeat.