I have to tell you, I was stunned at just how much I enjoyed “The Grey.” Not that I expected it to be bad or anything, but I wasn’t prepared for it to cut so deep emotionally. On the surface it looks like your average action adventure movie with a man versus animal theme and the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves, but as the story goes on it becomes less and less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle than anything else. The wolves are really just there as a metaphor for the beast inside of us that threatens to tear us apart.
Liam Neeson, who has been on a roll with action movies like this and “Taken,” stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John is not an oil worker however, but a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife Ana (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear if she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is that John is pretty despondent about his current situation in life, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on.
All of that contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the snowiest and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.
John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes that they will be rescued by the powers that be, but they are soon met by a foe that is even more deadly than the piercingly cold snow: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those who are left are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see that John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men that it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in the animals’ territory and not the least bit welcome there.
Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut of “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy that is both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life that has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel more relatable and they are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous.
Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way that makes you want to wear some longjohns and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations and that the cast and crew shot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures apparently got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!
Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I pretty much doubt that it is meant to be an accurate depiction of them. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special about wolves, but if you are, then why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.
But the more you get into this movie, the more you realize that it’s really not about man vs. wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As they make their way through the unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not entirely prepared to deal with, they discuss the existence of God or if there was ever one to begin with. Now “The Grey” is not out to offer any definitive answer to that question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for these characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level you don’t expect it to go to.
It also helps that you have a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson who all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to point out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz, and this is the kind of character you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is such a pain in the ass (a la Hudson from “Aliens”). But Grillo makes the character turn out to be more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.
You have got to hand it to Neeson though. Many may fret that he is wasting his time in action movies like this or “Taken,” but he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in that is remarkable. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few other actors can. If it were anyone else in this role it might not have seemed as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has) and you need an actor like that in a movie like this.
I also have to point out that “The Grey” has an emotionally powerful music score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for his last few movies, and he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan here. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music that is as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea that Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and that says a lot about his talent.
“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take its familiar elements to create a movie going experience you don’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the ending, I feel that it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story that requires a heavy duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie but one that was character driven, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in the direction they went in. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something that was business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that.