The Grey (2011)
“Live or die on this day.”
Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
Synopsis: After their plane crashes in Alaska, six oil workers are led by a skilled huntsman to survival, but a pack of merciless wolves haunts their every step.
Philosophically existential action movies are pretty thin on the ground, so Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is fairly unique in that respect. It certainly isn’t the all-out, glass-knuckle action movie the trailers would have had us all believe. There are moments of action and suspense, but there are also plenty of moments of quiet introspection, and a fairly compelling — and bleak – allegorical context. Those wolves are only fleetingly glimpsed for a reason — and it’s the same reason that justifies an abrupt ending that had many viewers feeling just a little cheated.
Liam Neeson plays Ottway, a marksman employed by an oil company to shoot prowling wolves in Alaska. He works amongst ‘men unfit for mankind,’ and counts himself as one of their number. He’s also on the point of suicide after his wife has left him. Early on, we see him kneeling on the floor with the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth, and the howl of a wolf is the only thing that stops him. One day later he’s clinging to life as the plane on which he travels crash lands in the snowy wastelands. He and six other men are the only survivors. One of them is mortally injured, and Ottway informs him with a calm humaneness that he is dying.
Common wisdom would suggest that any survivors of a plane wreck remain close to the wreckage and wait for rescue, but the searchable area is vast, and heavy snowfall is covering the plane’s wreckage. Worse than that, a pack of wolves is eating the bodies of the dead and showing more than a passing interest in the living. Ottway decides they should make a move, and head for a forest in the distance in the hope that the wolves won’t follow. Of course, the wolves do follow them, and make their intent known when they pick off a straggler. Death is creeping up on them, getting closer with every passing hour. As Diaz (Frank Grillo), a hostile former prison inmate caustically remarks: ‘This is fuck city. Population five and dwindling.’
As the story unfolds, we get to know the characters, but perhaps not as well as we could. Only Ottway, Diaz and to a lesser extent, Hendricks (Dallas Roberts), make much of an impression. Ottway is the Alpha male, his status mirroring that of the giant leader of the pack of wolves (it’s no coincidence that the wolf fights off a challenge to its leadership at the same time that Ottway faces down the belligerent Diaz), and the story is largely told from his perspective. The clash between him and Diaz seems to help the latter undergo some kind of self-discovery which has an important influence on the decisions he later makes, and forces him to finally understand the emptiness of the life he has chosen.
The place and comparative importance of faith in the lives of the characters also plays a major part in both the decisions they make and their attitude towards surviving the plane crash. Some see it as a sign that God has plans for them while others, Ottway amongst them, believe it is simply fate and that surviving the crash has probably only succeeded in giving them a few more harsh hours or days of life.
The Grey is the type of movie that would reward a second viewing in order for its real themes to be explored and appreciated by an audience that can at least approach it without a mistaken preconception of the type of film they are actually about to watch. It’s not without its flaws, but most of them aren’t the ones that are often mistakenly pointed out. Yes, these men make some stupid mistakes, but who amongst us haven’t? The mistakes are put there deliberately by Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers for a specific purpose that dovetails with the film’s themes.