Like a Jack London Story on Steroids: ‘The Grey’

Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is a manly movie for men, like the antitheses of a Lifetime movie. In fact, there’s exactly one woman in this movie with any lines at all—though there are some women in a bar that provide a bit of ambient background noise. Most of the film is a group of men on the verge of destruction. The Grey is a man versus nature story, emphasis on man. But you get to see Liam Neeson fist fight wolves, which is an obvious selling point, in my world.

The Grey takes place in Alaska. If you go to the very edges of civilization, then go past that, that’s where the movie is set. Ottway (Neeson) works for an oil company. His job is to shoot the local wolves so they don’t kill and eat the men who work on the pipeline. That’s his job, to hold back nature so it doesn’t sprint in and destroy humanity. It’s a bleak, hostile setting, full of bleak, hostile men.

Ottway is a hard drinking brute with the heart and soul of a poet. Running from a past trauma, the pain of which he cannot shake, he’s surrounded by the dregs of society. Fugitives, ex-cons, brawlers, and thugs of all kinds, “men unfit for mankind” — his people. These are the kind of men with nothing waiting for them back in civilization, with something to hide, men willing to work in the isolated asshole of the world.

When a planeload of these roughnecks crashes in a desolate windswept Alaskan wilderness, a small group of survivors try to stay alive and make their way back to the world they knew. At times, it’s very much like they’re trapped on another planet. Not only do they have to contend with an inhospitable environment, but they come face to face with a murderous pack of wolves, and themselves. The dynamics and hostilities within their own group mirror the pack that pursues them. They lash out, fight, and struggle for dominance.

These characters could easily have been stock types—that is actually how all of them aside from Ottway begin—but Carnahan takes his time and puts in the work to make them all distinct, complete individuals. Most of them anyway, there are a few that exist solely as wolf fodder. You find yourself connecting with characters that you never thought you would, and feeling for people you initially despise. Everyone has a journey and a story, not just the central figure, and for the most part The Grey weaves them together with a subtle touch that creates balance, infusing each with an emotionality that you didn’t see coming.

There are a few moments where The Grey drags, but even at close to two hours, there are only a handful that could use trimming. There’s a scene that exists only to kill off a character whose name you barely know—it might have been easier to simply write one less survivor. And there is an awkward point of view shift in the middle where the narrative jumps away from Ottway to Talget (Dermot Mulroney).

A debate over fate, chance, predestination, and dumb luck rages between the men. Did they survive for a reason? If there was a reason, why are they being picked off by the wolves, one by one, as they stagger through a blizzard? Why did those men survive the plane crash only to die in a wasteland? The Grey is like a Jack London on steroids, full of grim men cursing God. In the wilderness Ottway sees all of his inner demons reflected back at him, like he has to physically battle his psyche. You can tell when something bad is going to happen because he’s lost in reverie, in the midst of pleasant, almost blissful memories of his wife, only to be pulled back to the brutal immediacy of his situation.

The Grey is a full of quiet brawling and quiet tears. Neeson is a badass, reserved and controlled, but always on the edge of violence, and The Grey is similar to its protagonist. Never flashy, the film pushes on with stoicism and determination, bouncing between sobs and punches—at times transitioning too quickly—with no time for nonsense and fluff.

The bonus features begin with six deleted scenes. And these are full scenes, not just clips, totaling more than 22 minutes. There are some nice moments, like dragging a sled over the frozen corpse of a fallen comrade, the group desperately trying to start a fire, and a brief glimpse into Ottway’s past (he was a poacher). Still, you can see why most were left out. There are some thematic retreads, and bits that reconfirm information you already know, and for a movie that is already on the brink of being too long, the cuts were made for good reason.

There’s a commentary track with Carnahan, and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellman. Much like his movie, Carnahan is surly, brash, and profane, and drinks Scotch throughout the whole film. The director may be tough, but at the same time he’s also engaging, personable, and informative.

A variety of interactive features round out the Blu-ray, and the end result is a nice, well put together package.

RATING 7 / 10