Man vs. nature, and by extension, man vs. his own nature. It’s not an uncommon theme in film. Usually it involves the breakdown of a group in an isolated environment, becoming feral, members desperately trying to maintain their humanity. Director and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s The Grey dispenses with much of the metaphor and instead keeps things simple. Mere survival is the theme here, pitting a group of humans against a pack of wolves.
Set in the Alaskan wilderness, The Grey tells the story of a group of oil industry roughnecks who survive a plane crash on a mountain far away from civilization. Not long after the seven survivors organize themselves enough to get a life-saving fire burning, they discover they are being stalked by wolves. The wolves don’t seem to be interested in hunting the men for food. Rather, they seem intent on just killing them for being in the wrong place.
Led by the grim Ottway (Liam Neeson), a sniper employed by the oil company to protect the roughnecks from wolf attacks back at the camp the men originated from, the film follows the men as they try to escape from the wolves’ territory, their numbers whittled down throughout the course of the film.
It turns out, courtesy of Ottway’s insights, that the plane the men were riding in has crashed within the territorial radius of the wolves’ den, which means the beasts will unmercifully hunt down any animal that strays within, including humans. Without much food or shelter at the plane, and left on a windswept mountain slope, Ottway and crew have no choice but to set off and fend for themselves, abandoning hope of being rescued at the site of the crash. What follows is a grueling and well-filmed flight down the side of a mountain. The viewer is brought right into the hardships facing the characters. The snow is deep, the wind is biting, and despite the heavy coats all wear, it doesn’t seem to be enough. One thing does go the characters’ way, though. Frostbite doesn’t seem to have been a concern. Must not have been in the budget.
Ottway is a strong and knowledgeable character, and that’s one of the problems with him. The behavior of the wolves, by the audiences’ very unfamiliarity with the animals in the wild, is mysterious. Too mysterious for a coherent narrative. Enter Ottway. He works for the oil company, but he is a man apart, with very specific skills. His character is a killer of wolves, and thus a student of their nature. How very fortunate he survived the plane crash and was on hand to explain lupine behavior to his compatriots, and also to the audience. This little foible aside, without some explanation of what was happening onscreen, the film would have been a head-scratching mess.
Neeson, along with the other members of the cast, are generally excellent. I’m a fan of small ensemble casts that work well together and are comprised of competent actors. That’s The Grey in a nutshell. Among the standouts are Frank Grillo as the ex-con Diaz, and an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney as Talget. Look closely, that’s him hiding behind the hipster glasses and facial hair. The cast and their performances are at least as important in keeping the film grounded as is Carnahan’s direction.
Carnahan throws in a good amount of genuine tension in the film. In fact, taut would be an apt one-word description of The Grey. The wolves are an ever-present threat throughout, but mostly unseen. That’s intelligent filmmaking. The horror unseen is usually more frightening than the horror revealed. The wolves are patient. They wait for one of the men to show weakness, to become a straggler or an outlier, before they strike. And when they do, it’s quick and deadly. Even in times when the men are somewhat protected around campfires, the wolves are always just over a ridge or hiding behind the trees in the dark. One gets the sense that Carnahan was digging too deep of a hole for his protagonists. The situation does seem truly hopeless for our heroes.
The film’s atmosphere is one of gritty realism, but it’s not perfect. Along with the dubious lack of deleterious effects from exposure, there are occasional superhuman feats of survival that stand in stark contrast to the seriousness of the film. The Grey is a film that can drag the viewer in with its tension, with its look and feel, then expel the viewer just as quickly by stretching realism to the breaking point. The film is a delicate balancing act between what is possible and what is Hollywood fantasy. It’s best when it sticks to the real.