In an instant, The Grey establishes its mood.
A panning shot of cold, endless mountains and howling wolves in the distance quickly transitions to an Alaskan refinery at the end of the world.
It’s a job at the end of the world for Ottway (Liam Neeson), who says he belongs there, surrounded by his own – ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes and men unfit for mankind – as he pens a letter that he knows will never find its way to his former lover.
Director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey begins by establishing its dreary atmosphere and introducing, briefly, a character’s past and present troubles through a grizzly voice-over and dreamy, hallucinatory flashbacks to simpler times.
Ottway’s job at the end of the world? He protects drillers from the wolves that threaten them while they work. Posting up yards away from the workers, Ottway sits in the cold, sniper in hand, waiting for the next wolf to make a run at the men. Ottway shoots to kill but does so with a unique tenderness towards life.
It comes in handy that Ottway knows his way around killing a pack of wolves when the airplane carrying him and others crashes in the middle of nowhere Alaska. Seven oil workers, including Ottway, survive the brutal crash, which Carnahan films in a dizzying, loud and chaotic manner. Silence blasts into a huge noise as parts of the airplane begin to pull away and it barrels towards the snowy ground. It does for flying what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean, creating an all too real and authentic disaster sequence. Eat your heart our Roland Emmerich.
I think it would be easy to write off a film like The Grey. Yeah, it stars Liam Neeson in yet another badass and grizzly role and the story of a group of men surviving against nature isn’t too far out there. But still, Carnahan’s film propels itself past the average territory with an unexpected and worthwhile philosophical discussion and agenda. The Grey isn’t just a film about the survival of a group of men in harsh conditions while a pack of wolves hunt them down, but a meditation on life, death and fear. No, it doesn’t claim to be the most astute contribution to this discussion, but it changes the film and separates it from being just another film.
By fully fleshing out characters, Carnahan makes you care. He transcends the stereotypical characters a group of seven like this in a film normally would have by developing their background through patience, simple conversations. He makes Ottway much more than the survival expert he is – he makes him a human being. He turns Diaz (Frank Grillo) into much more than the rebel of the group by turning his behavior into a discussion of fear and false pride. This journey of survival isn’t just an exhibition in terror, but a full-fledged trek full of heart and soul.
Of course, Carnahan’s directing does instill fear and terror into the viewer. Some of the high intensity scenes – like the group of men trudging through the snow as fast as they can to escape a pack of wolves – are absolutely impressive and its frenzy is certainly welcomed. The action is terrifying and the unfortunate outcomes of some of them – death – leaves an impact on the viewer. The lasting impact helps as the film moves forward from the action to the calm after and before the next storm as the pattern of events becomes a perfect balancing act between the frenzied action and philosophical downtime that awaits the men as they wait out the cold Alaskan night.
Even more brilliant and to Carnahan’s credit, while The Grey wants you to believe that the villain is a pack of wolves, it really is a faceless and unidentifiable villain that is threatening the men. Okay – it’s nature. The world they inhabit is trying to kill them. Wolves chase, freezing cold temperatures envelope their minds and bodies, scaling heightened cliffs and trees threaten with every step and unexpected traps lead to shocking but certain death. Alaska’s nature is one of the most fearsome villains to be up against.
The Grey is Carnahan’s best effort to date and as I’ve explained, its unexpected philosophical and religious agenda about coping with death, fear, pride and god’s existence makes it out to be much more than meets the eye. He wraps the entire film into a poem repeated by Ottway:
Once more into the fray.
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.
Live and die on this day.
Live and die on this day.
Written by his father (paternity is another huge theme repeated by Carnahan’s characters), the poem finds its way into more than one way in the film. Ottway first speaks the words in his opening monologue as he pens a letter to his former lover, who pops up in dreams throughout Ottway’s attempt to survive. This is obviously no subtle effort to find meaning through poetry in The Grey – the poem is pretty self-explanatory. But still, it’s chilling simplicity and stark, bold words drive and dig into your mind, which is probably the most important thing Carnahan could do to his viewers.
Give The Grey a chance. It’s an important exercise in how to turn a standard man versus nature film or story into so much more, especially in today’s modern cinema where an itchy action finger and a shaky camera can obscure and fog up our view of what is really important in a situation of survival, which is proven to be Carnahan’s intent right from Ottway’s opening monologue and up to the ambiguous conclusion.