The Grey is an icily tense survival story about a plane full of Alaskan oil riggers that crash-lands in the middle of a wintry forest populated by some ferociously territorial wolves. It’s a grim story stripped down to its essential elements, with characters drawn in brisk, macho shorthand. At the center of it all is a man who we first see the night before takeoff shuffling around the camp. We learn that his job is to shoot wolves if they come near the other workers. But that’s not what he’s using his gun for this night. He places the barrel in his mouth and closes his eyes. He can’t go through with it. When the plane goes down, he’s the one with the gruff no-nonsense, clear-headed thinking. The small group that has survived the crash unknowingly put their lives in the hands of a suicidal man.
But who wouldn’t want to follow this man, so tall and gravely serious? He’s Liam Neeson, enjoying his career resurgence on the heels of successful action outings like the 2009 film Taken in which he punched his way through Paris to find his kidnapped daughter. His steely gaze and easy gravity are wholly convincing. Yet in The Grey, around a campfire one night, Neeson admonishes a fellow survivor (Frank Grillo) for his grating bravado, asking instead for a dropping of pretense and an embrace of some honest fear. “I’m scared,” Neeson says. That’s not exactly the Neeson we’re used to, the confident man of action. Here he doesn’t let his doubt show – he always seems to know exactly what they should attempt next – but his fear comes through with a cold, honest blast of survivalist pessimism.
Like Neeson subtly subverting his persona of recent years in this performance, writer-director Joe Carnahan sets out to subvert expectations with this film. His two most recent films were colorful and self-conscious efforts: Smokin’ Aces, a grungy, gory mock-Tarantino actioner, and The A-Team, a colorful 80’s action throwback. Those were films that were to a large extent knowingly goofy. The Grey is anything but. It’s knowingly serious with life-and-death stakes played grimly and downbeat. (It’s like Carnahan’s best film, 2002’s Narc in that way). It’s a destabilizing film that uses genre conventions only to slowly erode them out from underneath the characters.
The steady rock of a man at the center of the film is afraid, and so too are those around him. There is no comfort to be found here. The other men are at varying levels of acceptance of their situation. One (Dallas Roberts) wants to say some words for the deceased. Another (Joe Anderson) just wants to get another chance to find a nice girl. Yet another (Dermot Mulroney) slowly realizes he may not be made of the same survivalist stock as the others. And yet they all soon come face to face with their limitations. The forces of nature are coming to take them out far faster than hypothetical rescuers could come to take them to safety.
It all takes place in a convincingly dangerous setting, the starkly beautiful winter fields and forests covered in a pristine snow that is soon to be sullied by burns and blood. The soundtrack is filled with the sounds of whipping wind and howling plumes of stinging snow mixing with the puffing clouds of ice-cold breath, overlapping with shouted dialogue. The theater was nice and warm, but I felt a chill. Nature dominates the feel of the film, thwarting the characters at every turn. And there are, of course, those wolves. Neeson hypothesizes that the plane crashed into the middle of the wolves’ territory. The night air is filled with the sounds of howling wolves, their snarls drawing closer until the faint glow of their eyes reflected in the campfire proves to be too late a warning.
This is an aggressively downbeat film that moves forward with a deadly efficient sparseness. At times it fleetingly seemed to me to be nothing less than the filmmaking equivalent of Hemingway’s prose, so clean and uncomplicated, so interested in the ways man is defined, at least in part, by his relationship to the wilderness. This unexpectedly artful film is a shock of icy pop nihilism with a bunch of tough guys (defined in the film’s opening as marginalized members of society) reduced to sitting around contemplating death. No matter what they do, they just can’t seem to improve their situation. These men take plenty of actions in the film, planning and scheming and desperately trying to find new ways to escape wolf territory and find civilization, but the central feeling of a dangerous lack of progress, the creeping sense of the overwhelming inevitability of death, is potent.