Grey, The (United States, 2012)

January 30, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Grey, The Poster

Some would argue that the best way to see Alaska is through the images captured by an expert photographer. As breathtaking as the views may be, the climate can be unforgiving, with weather, terrain, and fauna that might give even notable survival expert Bear Gryllis pause. In The Grey, director Joe Carnahan's man vs. nature epic, the filmmaker strands seven characters in the midst of some of the most inhospitable territory on earth and shows that, when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to survival, human beings have a tendency to look inward. The Grey is about raging against the dying of the light but also about accepting it with peace once the fight has been lost.

January and February, while not considered a prime market for motion pictures, have been good to Liam Neeson. Clad in the mantle of The Everyday Action Hero, Neeson has capitalized on his stolid reputation and a weak release schedule to burn up the box office with Taken (in January 2008) and Unknown (in February 2011). That is likely the reason Open Road Films elected to distribute The Grey to theaters in the dead of winter, and to open it in multiplexes when one could easily argue it is art house fare.

The Grey is technically an adventure film. It's about a bunch of guys struggling against snowstorms, cold, starvation, hostile terrain, and wolves to find their way back to civilization. Yet it does not play out the way most movies of this sort do. There's an almost poetic quality to the way things develop, with characters becoming increasingly introspective. The Grey descends into the existential with discussions about God and faith, and deals with how a person confronts the inevitable when he is face-to-face with it. Action lovers may be sorely disappointed. The film does not offer 90 minutes of man-on-wolf action. In fact, physical encounters are in short supply. The Grey is more concerned with how the men cope with the danger of the wolves' presence than what happens when a clash occurs.

The movie opens with a short prologue that gathers the principals together while introducing lead character Ottway (Neeson), a marksman who makes his living shooting wolves to protect workers assembling a pipeline. Despite his rugged features and taciturn disposition, Ottway is a tragic man. Through fragmented flashbacks, we understand that he has lost the great love of his life and he now goes about the day-to-day drudgery of living more as a distraction or an unwelcome obligation. At one point, he puts the barrel of a gun to his mouth, but does not pull the trigger. Instead, he boards a plane with dozens of other pipeline workers. The plane crashes. He is one of handful of survivors.

Ottway takes six men with him on a trek through the wilds toward the vague hope of rescue. He is convinced if they remain at the crash site, the wolves will get them - a concern that is quickly validated. Yet trudging through drifts of snow in a blinding squall doesn't seem like a recipe for success. The group's already small numbers dwindle and the wolves sense an opportunity. It becomes a primal contest between the humans' alpha male and the wolves' alpha male.

Three characters are developed enough to seem more substantive than wolf fodder. The first, obviously, is Ottway, who is a typical Neeson creation. Ottway is steeped in irony - the man who comes within a hair's breadth of killing himself is now leading a desperate struggle for survival. For a while it looks like Diaz (Frank Grillo) is going to be a one-dimensional antagonist - the man who exists solely to provide a human villain. Fortunately, Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers have other ideas. Then there's Talget (Dermot Mulroney), a low-key individual who carries with him a tremendous weight - the wallets of all the men and women who died when the plane went down.

The Grey's abrupt cut-to-black at the end will undoubtedly anger some viewers but, upon careful consideration, it's a perfect way to end the movie. In a strange way, it's a high point and, had we stayed with events for even a few moments longer, things would have ended on a less satisfying note. This is how The Grey has to end, and it's not as big a cliffhanger as it might initially seem. Thinking about it for even a moment allows us to recognize how things would likely play out. But not seeing them permits us the same faint measure of hope that impels the characters throughout the story.

This is easily the most mature movie to date from action director Carnahan (whose most recent effort was the Neeson-led The A-Team). It has its share of clunky moments - some of the speeches are a little canned and rehearsed and there's a sense early in the film that we're playing the "guess who dies next" game with secondary characters we know aren't going to make it very far. Overall, however, The Grey is a welcome surprise - a suspenseful survival tale that eschews the cheesiness of The Edge in favor of something a little more thoughtful and contemplative. And, unlike 127 Hours, which celebrated the will to live, this is about what happens when that will may not suffice.

Grey, The (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2012-01-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1