While the wolves provide some big jump-scares, The Grey is even more harrowing when it lingers on the idea of death, rather than the violent event.
In The Grey, a plane carrying oil-drill workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, and the survivors must band together to stave off a litany of environmental threats, including but not limited to a pack of wolves. Given the filmography of director Joe Carnahan, which includes the cartoony Smokin' Aces and the cartoonier The A-Team, you might expect some amped-up man-versus-wolves smackdowns. But while the manly anti-camaraderie remains consistent with Carnahan's past work (including the grittier Narc), The Grey applies his visceral talents to a story that approaches thoughtfulness.
Carnahan enlists his A-Team star Liam Neeson -- himself no stranger to lunkheaded guy-oriented entertainment of late -- to play Ottway, a loner whose job at the oil rig could be described as wolf assassin. We see him going about his business, living alongside the other "men unfit for mankind," as his narration puts it, but not connecting with them. When Flannery (Joe Anderson) tries to make conversation with him on the plane ride out of their remote location, Ottway brusquely demurs and tries to fall asleep.
He wakes up mid-turbulence, and soon it becomes clear that the plane is in trouble. Carnahan cuts together the crash sequence with jolting intensity, from the way he shows Ottway dragged out of his slumber to the visible breath that emits from the passengers' mouths, functioning as quick, chilling shorthand for the plane's impending doom. Carnahan has indulged in showoffy music-video style visuals before, but here the images have real power: they're simpler, scarier, and starker.
The starkness only increases when a small group of men crawl out of the wreckage, in the middle of what looks like a vast, neverending snowstorm. Ottway, possessing Neeson's insta-gravitas, quickly takes charge of the able-bodied survivors, including the standoffish Diaz (Frank Grillo) and the gentler Talget (Dermot Mulroney). While they're building a fire and planning how to make their way back to civilization, Ottway has the unsettling realization that the wolves are circling, and they must take whatever action possible to avoid a grisly fate -- which, of course, some of the men do meet, not longer afterward.
At this point, The Grey becomes something of a slasher movie, with nature as the slasher. But it's also surprisingly reflective about the death that saturates the story; while the wolves provide some big jump-scares, the movie is even more harrowing when it lingers on the idea of death. In one early scene, we stay with Ottway as he talks one victim, plainly but without cruelty, through his fast-approaching death. Later, he challenges Diaz about admitting his fear. The men don't exactly become friends, but neither do they turn into animals themselves. They just make do, scraping together odd bits of loyalty along with their meager supplies.
Though falling temperatures and unfriendly terrain stack the odds against the men, The Grey keeps turning to the wolves to embody the real threat of nature and death. These creatures start out nearly realistic (they're tough to beat) and inch toward mythic (at one point, someone suggests that the animals are toying with their prey, even seeking revenge!). They're villainized to such a degree that you might half-expect to see flashbacks of wolves tampering with the plane.
Eventually, the repetitive cycle of wolf standoffs, wolf attacks, and wolves howling in the distance becomes wearying. The filmmakers must sense this, too, because the deaths in the second half of the movie take on such relative variety that they threaten to resemble a Final Destination movie. But while Carnahan knows how to go over the top, he keeps The Grey from descending into mayhem -- in other words, those paying to see Liam Neeson fight his way through a wolf pack with broken bottles taped to his knuckles may be disappointed. And some material that could've been milked for more drawn-out suspense feels rushed through, as if fudging moments that would have been easier with a higher budget.
Or maybe Carnahan just finds himself less interested in mayhem and suspense at this point in his career. As it trudges on through the snow, The Grey becomes almost a macho melodrama, with its grim ruminations on faith, fatherhood, and survival. Sometimes it hits these observations square on the nose, often by having his characters discuss the heavy themes directly. Even a restrained Carnahan isn't subtle, and his restraint threatens to turn the movie ponderous.
For the most part, though, the movie is effective, and Carnahan's best so far. There are pleasures in The Grey -- the striking imagery, Neeson's gruff charisma put to its best use in years -- but more than so many other action, adventure, or horror movies, they come with a strong sense of mortality. Some of the characters die grisly deaths, while others go quietly. Both, Carnahan points out, are scary as hell.