What does it mean, on a spiritual and moral level, to be a man? What is our place in nature? When all the chips are down, what do we cling to as the measure of our character and worth as we leave the final mark of our very existence? These are the lofty questions posed by The Grey, the new film by director and co-writer Joe Carnahan, based on a short story called “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also co-wrote the screenplay).
It should be noted that one of the questions not answered by the movie is, “How awesome would it be to have grizzled badasses punch wolves in the face?”, as some of the marketing for the film seems to suggest. This is a (purportedly) realistic survival adventure with action elements, devoid of Hollywood sheen and swashbuckle.
Liam Neeson (working with Carnahan again after The A-Team) stars as John Ottway, a melancholy security guard of sorts at an oil rig in Alaska. It’s his job to protect the workers from the nasty wolves that periodically get too close to the installation. The film opens with Ottway narrating what is essentially a suicide note to his wife, glimpsed in flashbacks. We don’t know what happened to her, or them, but we know it can’t be good. He hates his job, and his co-workers—a bunch of rowdy ex-cons and depressives like him. After he somewhat inexplicably aborts the suicide attempt, he and a team from the rig are on a flight back to Anchorage when the plane crashes, stranding him and a handful of survivors in the harsh, wolf-infested wilderness.
The film takes great pains to humanize the characters and to give their final moments all the horror and weight that the end of a human life actually warrants. These aren’t the ragdoll throwaway bodies of a shoot-’em-up, as is evidenced within minutes after the plane crash when the survivors gather around one of the group who is bleeding to death, horribly awake and aware. Neeson comforts him and talks him through to the other side as we watch, transfixed.
As they cross the “grey” of the wilderness fleeing the wolves, the men bicker and bond, forming their own pack-like hierarchy, with Neeson (of course) emerging as the alpha. Each of the men gets at least one or two nice moments to wax philosophical about their lives and their priorities as they come closer and closer to terms with the inevitable.
While the plane crash sequence is certainly harrowing, with some great attention to detail, the wolf encounters tend to undermine the grounded reality built up so carefully by the rest of the film. There are genuine moments of shock and horror, but there’s also a fair amount of theatricality, with choruses of hundreds of howls that dramatically stop in an instant, and some unfortunately fake-looking CGI and close-ups of the animals.
The Grey is an exciting, if uneven, paean to the macho ideal. It metaphorically and literally strips men down to their bones to see what makes them—and us—tick. While Neeson is customarily solid, those looking for the close-combat action figure from Taken or Unknown will need to find their kicks elsewhere.
Director: Joe Carnahan
Writer: Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (screenplay); Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (short story “Ghost Walker”)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
Release Date: Jan. 27, 2012