Though it doesn’t do any favors for lupine public relations or arguments in favor of the Endangered Species Act, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is the kind of film Werner Herzog would admire. Boldly rejecting religious faith as a prerequisite for survival, this men-lost-in-the-woods thriller would appeal to the celebrated documentarian’s view that nature, for all its grandeur and beauty, is amoral, brutal and merciless. And man is arrogant to think otherwise.
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a suicidal sharpshooter hired by an Alaskan oil company to protect its roughnecks from the local wildlife. Emotionally broken by the loss of his marriage, he struggles to find a reason to keep going. On a company flight during a snow storm, Ottway’s plane crashes, and he finds himself amid a handful of survivors. Unfortunately, he and the six remaining members of the oil drilling team have landed in the middle of nowhere. Worse, it’s deep in timber wolf country, where a large pack of canis lupus isn’t too happy to have visitors. As the men are picked off one by one, Neeson establishes himself as the alpha male among alpha males, trying to keep his grizzled co-workers alive with his wilderness know-how. This sets up the film’s see-saw drama, countering gritty, violent action scenes with manly character discussions on faith, family and self-worth. Blood flies, wolves howl, and men curse as The Grey revels in both primal and spiritual nihilism.
Carnahan is unsparing when it comes to suspense, employing a muscular and unpredictable style that recalls the work of Walter Hill or even Sam Peckinpah. And with British Columbia’s frigid landscape standing in for the wilds of Alaska, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi creates stunning and ominous compositions that make painfully clear the dire situation the men are in. The wolves might be little more than B-movie boogeymen (a scene with CGI eyes is a laughable misstep), but with its old-fashioned survival flick foundations, The Grey makes a great companion piece with Lee Tamahori’s similarly harrowing (though markedly less violent) The Edge (penned by David Mamet).
Neeson is a master of brooding badassery in a role that might’ve gone to Charles Bronson 40 years ago. Though his character could use more shading and depth, the actor brings both stature and gravitas, elevating his role as both survivor and reluctant savior. Though he may be a brutally efficient male, Ottway is provocatively damaged goods, a man whose bleak outlook on the world only seems to become more validated as the wolves establish their upper hand. Ottway isn’t a hero because he’s noble or valiant, but because he’s angry enough to want to shift the odds, defy God’s callous indifference. If there even is a God.
It’s a question that Hollywood rarely tackles anymore, too often accepting dull homilies about the empowering nature of religious belief. As clumsy, profane and ham-fisted as the tough-guy talk gets, what the men in The Grey really wrestle with is God’s absence. Depicting how they struggle with the savagery of the outside world as well as their own internal savagery, Carnahan and screenwriter Ian Jeffers’ script is smart enough to let nature speak for itself. Believer and non-believer alike fall prey to nature’s harsh realities, leaving spiritual conclusions to be settled in the great beyond. The Grey’s third act builds to an almost perfect conclusion, never once compromising its fatalistic premise. Unfortunately, Carnahan misses an opportunity to thematically connect the Darwinian attitudes of the oil companies that employ these men, treating them as disposable assets that are not worth the prices of a full-scale search mission.
Though Carnahan doesn’t quite shed the moronic macho posturing of previous efforts (such as Smoking Aces or The A-Team), The Grey is both a return to the promise he showed in Narc and an impressive step forward.