The Grey (2012)
I’ve always been fascinated with survival thriller/horror, where we think step-by-step with the characters through an unlikely scenario. I greatly enjoyed Frozen, a horror movie about three teens stranded on a ski lift, and Buried was in my top ten list for 2010. I enjoy the thought exercise and find the scenarios easily empathetic as long as people don’t make boneheaded decisions. Director Joe Carnahan has been paying his bills as of late with stylized, overdone, and generally overblown action movies like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. I would not have expected Carnahan to deliver anything that could be described as nuanced or meditative, but lo and behold The Grey is a survival thriller that’s as thoughtful and emotional as it is viscerally exhilarating. The Grey is the first great movie of 2012 and I’m astounded that it was released in January, the dumping ground for cinematic dreck.
We follow a group of grunts working on an oil pipeline way out in the northern Alaskan territory. They’re heading south for some R&R when their plane crashes due to electrical issues. Ottway (Liam Neeson) and seven other men are the lone survivors. While checking for supplies, they discover a pack of wolves feasting on some of the choicer corpses. Ottway is a wolf expert, hired by the oil company to patrol the grounds and hunt antagonistic wolves. He explains that wolves have a hunting radius of 300 miles and a kill radius of 30 within the den. It is uncertain where these men find themselves, so they bundle up and head south, hoping to escape the predators, find food and water, and discover a way to help.
The Grey is a harrowing, haunting, and intense thriller, masterfully played by Carnahan. The threat is real and brutal, enough that it convinces the men to leave the safety of the plane wreckage to possibly escape the wolf kill radius. We’re told that wolves are the only animal that will kill out of vengeance (look out Sarah Palin). The attacks are vicious and the violence is bloody and occasionally shocking, though it never seems gratuitous. The special effects and canine animatronics are seamlessly integrated. The sound design for this movie is exceptional, probably the best use of sound to fashion anxiety since 2007’s No Country for Old Men or even Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The sounds of the wolf pack echo around the theater, completely keeping you off guard, disorienting the audience. Carnahan creates such a vivid picture of dread that we’re convinced that the wolves could sic at any moment. And when they do the editing becomes chaotic, mimicking the ferocity of the animals and depicting the frenzied fear of the attacked.
I was a terrible bundle of nerves throughout most of this movie. The plane crash is an exemplary sequence of terror, capturing the terrifying moments from Ottway’s limited point of view. The rest of the movie doesn’t get any less tense just because they’re on stable footing. There’s one scene where the wolves attack a guy who has fallen back from the group. Carnahan brilliantly captures the helpless reality by showing the men trying to race back in knee-high snow. They can only stomp so far while the man is ripped apart in the background. The action sequences, though to be fair they’re really more suspense pieces, are the most nerve-wracking I’ve endured since the brilliant Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. Of course these being life and death stakes, there is plenty of death, as the men are generally picked off one by one, though not all by the pack of wolves. The frigid elements are just as dangerous as the killer wolves. The men could just as easily freeze to death. The need for shelter and food is dire (the men even joke about the famous cannibalism from Alive). One of them is suffering just from his brain being unable to acclimate to the elevated attitude. That’s almost enviable considering the doom that constantly hangs over the other survivors.
Naturally there’s some friction between the survivors as far as the best course of action. Ottway has assumed Alpha dog status thanks to his expertise on wolves and the Arctic climate, but that does not mean that the rest of the men follow lockstep. Give the alarming situation, it will be in these men’s best interest to work together for survival. Some of the men chafe at being what to do but the movie doesn’t drags out this conflict, thankfully, because jockeying for power positions seems like an absurd waste of time. There are heavier issues at play. The impact of the movie would be blunted if the characters came across as one-dimensional; then we wouldn’t care about their fate. Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker,” find creative ways to enrich and reveal the character of these lone men. They feel believable and their reactions to the implausible dangers seem plausible, keeping us invested. Ottway keeps flashing back to an image of his wife (Anne Openshaw) for strength, this angelic brunette telling him not to worry. It’s what he has to hold onto, though when we learn more about the context of this image it becomes even more meaningful. One character has had enough struggling and has no will power to continue. He argues that whatever life he may return to is no reward.
The thrills and scares are what are to be expected, but The Grey is also a much more thoughtful and intellectually stimulating picture than you may have hoped. Carnahan’s script covers a wide array of survival tactics without breaking from the reality of its premise. It’s just interesting to watch a group of men use their wits to make best use of their dwindling supplies and dire situation. It becomes a game that the audience plays, systematically judging every choice and assessing if we would follow suit. Beforehand, the men engage in a theological discussion regarding the existence of God, faith, the belief that there is a divine plan. The men are fighting for their survival but having an existential crisis all the same, trying to supply meaning to the horrific, find reasons to keep fighting. “We crashed going 400 miles per hour and we survived. That has to mean something,” one of them reasons. Or it all could just be very bad luck. Ottway at one point, an admitted non-believer in a higher power, bellows to the sky for something, anything. His desperation is effective and turns what could have been trite into a nice character moment. One of the men shares a memory of his daughter, who would wake him up by gently dangling her hair in his face. It’s a touching moment and when that same character meets an untimely end and is helped to the other side by a vision of that same daughter, it becomes profoundly moving (the quick snap to reality is a jarring point for grisly comparison). The Grey has plenty more on its mind than making an audience jump. It also wants to make the audience think and, in the end, feel genuine emotion.
The ending may rankle some who felt, especially with the advertising, that the film was going to be a two-hour Neeson ass-kicking vehicle, but for me it was fitting and the only way this story could have ended. Though let me advise all potential ticket-buyers to stay during the end credits for a small bit that offers a tad more resolution, though still leaves as much to be determined by the viewer. It’s not exactly ambiguous considering how things are left.
Neeson (Unknown, Clash of the Titans) has settled nicely into his newest incarnation as middle-aged ass-kicker, such an odd path for the man who famously portrayed Oskar Schindler. At some level, it’s below an actor of Neeson’s standards to be running through such genre frills, but it’s also a joy to see someone who can really, truly act give gravitas to his men of action. After he delivered his warning in Taken, I was completely on board and ready to watch this man bust some skulls. Beyond the physical challenges, the role really puts Neeson through an emotional wringer and the man gives a strong, stirring performance. You’d be glad to have this man in any predicament. The rest of the cast fill out their parts well, with Dermot Mulroney (The Family Stone) making the best use of his time onscreen to create a character.
The Grey is a startling movie; horrific, jolting, thrilling, moving, beautiful, philosophical, and extremely captivating. Carnahan has crafted an exciting movie that transcends genre. There were moments so tense that I was chewing on my knuckles. There were moments so intense I felt like I had to look away. And there were moments so poignant that tears welled up in my eyes. I look forward to watching this movie again and finding even more at work. No grey area here, this is one truly excellent movie.
Nate’s Grade: A