It’s rare when today’s person really understands him or herself. Modern life continually pushes forward and doesn’t allow time for proper reflection. An entire industry was built around buying time for introspection in hour-long blocks, typically lying on a couch. Other times, however, life gives people all the time they need to think and really look at themselves. The Greyis a film about men who are stripped of all the non-essentials in life, and who take a long look at who they really are and what matters most. While sometimes heartbreaking and tragic, the journey to self-discovery is satisfying to the end.
Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a guard for a drilling team in Alaska. Rather than intercepting humans, it’s wild animals that Ottway keeps an eye out for, killing them with precision when necessary. After the crew finishes its latest job, they pile into an airliner and presumably prepare for warmer climates. Unfortunately, a malfunction and terrible turbulence sends the plane crashing down somewhere in the middle of uninhabitable Alaskan territory, leaving only a handful of survivors, including Ottway. To make matters worse, the men discover themselves within the territory of a pack of wolves that will do whatever it takes to protect their den. With no hope of rescue, the men have little choice but to brave the near-arctic wastes and escape before they die from hunger, exposure or wolf attacks.
Watching The Grey, one is reminded of the fictive techniques employed in literature. Inner monologue, close-ups on mundane objects, pieces of conversation and other facets present a clear picture of Ottway’s world much in the same way a book might. Moreover, the attention to detail and the deliberate direction shows just how much director Joe Carnahan is crafting a story just as a book author shapes scenes by describing only the essential and omitting the rest.
It’s the details that really make this film as good as it is. One of the most startling visuals in the film is when the men are huddled around a fire, surrounded by darkness. A wolf howls and as the men peer into the gloom all they can see is the wolf’s breath, catching a bit of light as it rises from its snout. When the rest of the pack howls in response, seeing the lone column of breath multiply into several is awe-inspiring as it is disheartening.
As a survival horror movie, character development is somewhat limited, but the film does an adequate job of giving the actors enough substance to carve memorable performances from, but the personalities don’t deviate much from the standard archetypes for these films. Ottway is the level-headed hero. Diaz (Frank Grillo) is the loose cannon with nothing positive to contribute. Flannery (Joe Anderson) is the loudmouth no one cares for. Talget (Durmot Mulroney) just wants to see his daughter again. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) represents the innocence of the group who makes it a point to say a prayer for the dead passengers. While there aren’t many surprises when it comes to character arcs, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that audiences will feel a sense of loss when survivors necessarily begin to die.
The pacing is only slightly uneven, but that’s mainly due to expectations, considering the type of film. The first act feels a bit slow as audiences learn who Ottway is and are fed cryptic bits of information regarding a woman from his past and his suicidal thoughts. Once the plot kicks into high-gear, however, the movie becomes a survivalist’s dream as the characters fight the elements and the wild. Things slow down again when survivors start to die as each character is given a special death segment – which sometimes feels contrived. Nevertheless, The Grey is all about creating memorable scenes rather than a neatly wrapped up story, and by that standard the film is a great success.
For all the fear, death and suspense in this film, The Grey is also surprisingly tender. Early on one of the surviving passengers dies as others hold him while Ottway helps the man pass. Later, the wallets of the dead men are collected to be given to their families. Examining the contents of each billfold reveals family pictures and IDs, hinting at complete lives that every viewer immediately understands and connects with. Contrasted with the animal savagery of the wolf pack, The Grey ironically becomes a celebration of humanity. It’s this message that will linger with audiences long after the last jaws snap shut.