A rock-solid survival film with a lead performance to match, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is a raw, gritty, and surprisingly poetic tale of survival in the Alaskan wilderness that recalls Alive, The Edge, and stories by Jack London. Front-and-center is Liam Neeson in full Taken tough guy mode, fighting both the elements and a vicious pack of wolves.
Neeson is John Ottway, a man employed by a remote Alaskan drilling station as a marksman: he keeps the wolves away. Flashbacks inform us of an ex-wife Ottway is no longer with, though still cares deeply for.
He’s at a place for lost souls, and as he details his current situation in a letter to his ex (and also through voiceover narration), he’s just about lost the will to live.
The Grey, at least initially, doesn’t seem to be the movie you might have expected: slow, grim, and unrelentingly bleak. But there’s hope for Ottway in the most unimaginable place possible.
As he heads out on leave with other workers from the station, their plane goes down in one of the most intense crash sequences put to film (mostly due to the fact that it’s all shot from the cabin). As Ottway finds himself stranded, injured, and freezing, his fight for survival gives life new meaning.
There are seven men left alive initially; that number goes down after one of them is brutally attacked and killed by a pair of wolves during the night. Ottway tells the survivors that they’re in the wolves’ den, and that they need to get out. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Diaz (Frank Grillo), Burke (Nonso Anozie), and Flannery (Joe Anderson) reluctantly follow him.
I love how the movie has no pretense of making Ottway a survival guru. It seems like the group should stay with the plane and try to barricade themselves inside; surely, help will be sent to this approximate location.
But Ottway knows wolves and he knows they won’t quit. There’s little commentary as to whether the decisions he makes are right or wrong; he does what his instincts tell him to survive.
The Grey is raw, brutal, and even terrifying: the wolves’ glowing eyes in the night, and especially the howls surrounding the men, will send chills down your spine. Stark cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior) perfectly captures the bleak Alaskan wilderness.
Carnahan has had ups and downs as a director, from the realistic, hard-hitting Narc to the cartoonish action of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. The Grey is likely his best film. If there’s a flaw here, it’s in the director’s style: the handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing sometimes clashes with the unrelenting reality of the situation, rather than adding to it.
At a couple points during the film, Neeson’s character recites a poem that his Irish father had written. It perfectly summarizes the mentality of the film:
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
Note: stick around after the credits for a brief, but satisfying, final shot.