The Grey strives to be something different, turning what could have been a piece of mid-January claptrap into a far more satisfying experience.
There is no yarn older than that of man vs. nature. It's part of our ancestral make-up and homo sapien heritage. Aside from someone like Werner Herzog, who always turns these artistic explorations into something akin to man vs. his own nature, the story of survival is instinctual. It's as much a part of our humanity as love...or hate. In his newest film, writer/director Joe Carnahan (collaborating with author Ian MacKenzie Jeffers) turns an existential eye on the whole one against the elements ideal...and for the most part, he succeeds. While audiences might be expecting a rollicking rollercoaster of action and thrills, The Grey actually builds from the inside out, focusing on the individual struggles of a group of plane crash survivors before bringing them face to face with a pack of ferocious wolves.
Our main hero is Liam Nesson, playing the plaintive John Ottway, a sullen man who is hired by an Alaskan oil refinery to maintain the safety of the staff. He does so with a high powered rifle, a gift for marksmanship, and a 'nothing to lose' attitude. There are hints of a great tragedy in his past, and like the rest of his coworkers, he considers himself an outcast in the regular world. A plane crash strands Ottway and about half dozen or so of his companions in the middle of the wintery tundra. Needing to move quickly to survive, they soon learn that they have landed in the middle of grey wolf hunting territory - and a particularly nasty pack consider them their new prey. Avoiding attack, frostbite, and hypothermia, the ragtag group try to distance themselves from the hungry animals. Sadly, they may not make it out of the situation alive.
With its thoughtful tone, melancholy voice over (by Nesson), and desire to turn your standard schlock level premise into something more meaningful, The Grey becomes an endearing, if overly earnest, entertainment. It frequently fails to make its characters into anything more than cliches (the badass, the gallows humor guy, the loving father, the strong-weak link) and really never gives us a clear view of the threat all around. Indeed, the wolf attacks are handled in carefully edited, PETA-friendly sequences which infer a lot and show very little. Any gore or gruesomeness comes at the expense of the actors, whose wounds spray blood while the surrounding snow turns a sickening color of bright red. In fact, without Nesson at the center, this movie would be mediocre. With his fatherly, ferocious presence, it avoids the worst of its genre trappings to turn into something almost great. Almost.
Indeed, for a movie built on the notion of a group of guys overcoming the constant threat of a pack of wolves, The Grey is fairly dour. Like last year's Drive, which took a typical modern crime scenario and strapped it to the back of a late '40s noir, this is a post-millennial monster movie laced to the insular efforts of the early '70s. Indeed, you could easily see a Robert Redford or a Lee Marvin taking on the Central Casting company provides, all while delivering the deep thought inner dialogue which pushes the film forward. Within the collection of creeps and cons, a couple certainly stick out. As a loving parent who seems convinced that he will never come to harm, Dermot Mulroney is excellent. While almost unrecognizable in his beard and ball cap, his endearing performance shines through. Similarly, Frank Grillo gives the macho Diaz a nice undercurrent of heart. While his bravado grows tiresome, his passion does not.
For his part, Neeson is the calm both within and before the storm. He knows enough about the wolves to keep his compatriots informed, but really can't stop the oncoming slaughter. It's an intense inner conflict that comes across on every inch of his freezing face. Unlike his past action attempts - Unknown, Taken, The A-Team (his last collaboration with Carnahan) - this is more of a mental challenge than physical one. The elements hamper almost all human endeavors, so Neeson's Ottway must be more clever, more cunning than the animals he is battling. That he rarely 'wins' is not the point. He believes in himself, not some false feeling of fate (or faith). It makes for an intriguing central conceit to what we've normally come to expect from the genre.
As for Carnahan, he's finally figured out that less is a lot, lot more. In previous efforts such as Smokin' Aces (which came across like an Americanized Guy Ritchie on crystal meth) and the aforementioned TV remake, he was out of control and confusing. This was a director who saw nothing wrong with giving the audience such audacious set-pieces as a freefalling tank in full artillery mode blasting away at enemies or a raucous, ridiculous shoot-out in a glass and mirror laden hotel lair filled with oddball assassins. In The Grey, the only over the top eye candy is the stunning Canadian landscape, it's ice palace tranquility frequently broken up by blizzards, massive snow banks...and the blood trailing from another wolf victim. It's a nice counterbalance to the slow burn desperation inherent in the narrative.
In fact, the best thing about The Grey is the fact that it doesn't give into the same old action movie tropes. We don't get Ottway 'inventing' a series of hand crafted booby traps to keep the animals at bay, nor is there a moment when the movie forgets its set-up and offers a character a sudden surge of ability he didn't have before. Yes, the frequent lapses into a drowsy dreamscape (the better to establish Ottway's morose worldview) can grow a bit tiring, and the ending is the kind of incomplete shocker that should send at least more than one angry audience member to their Twitter account, but it's all part of Carnahan's determined design. Instead of giving fans what they expect, The Grey strives to be different. Sometimes, such a determination works against the overall effect of the film. Here, it turns what could have been a piece of mid-January claptrap into a far more satisfying experience.