More fleshed-out than expected, 'The Grey' is an atmospheric tale of survival. And wolves.
The Grey Open Road Films
Director: Joe Carnahan
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on the short story Ghost Walker, by
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Larry Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe
Rated R / 1 hour, 57 minutes
Opened January 27, 2012
(out of four)
I walked into The Grey normal and clean-shaven, and walked out with a full-grown beard and
an extra testicle. See, when Liam Neeson teaches you what it means to be a man, the effect is
He's been doing this for years. I mean, the guy trained Batman and Darth Vader - when he
opens his mouth, you listen. His track record speaks for itself. In this one, his training ground is
the frozen emptiness of the Alaskan wilderness in the aftermath of a plane crash. That is, an
Alaskan wilderness surrounded by a deep dark forest and lorded over by a pack of hungry
The Grey is ostensibly a slasher movie. The wintery Northern setting is the middle-of-nowhere
town; the crashed plane is the car that runs out of gas in the woods; the wolves are the faceless,
unconquerable killer; and our group of bearded heroes are the slutty teenagers getting picked off
one by one.
There's a bit more to it than that, of course - in fact, there's an interesting (if somewhat
awkward) philosophical bent to the whole thing that adds an unexpected sense of perspective and
even warmth to it all. Writer/director Joe Carnahan slyly draws parallels between the social-cultural construct of the human survivors, and that of the pack of wolves hunting them in what
we'll just call a territorial dispute.
One night we overhear some sort of conflict among the wolves; Ottway (Neeson) explains that
the alpha has been challenged, a physical struggle ensued, and the schism was promptly put
down. We realize the same thing is happening with the human characters, Ottway firmly
establishing himself as the alpha, even against the belligerent resistance of Diaz (Frank Grillo),
an ex-con who fits comfortably in the "guy who's only out for himself" role that all survival
The Grey has a marvelous sense of place that allows Carnahan
to capture the desolation of it, creating an atmosphere of maddening nothingness where the hope
of living until morning is the only solace. Shot on location in British Columbia, the film feels
cold; it doesn't seem like anyone's faking it. That kind of credibility does wonders for this type
Though the wolves may be front-and-center as the primary antagonist, Carnahan spends most of
his time giving us a feel for the characters' equally dangerous surroundings. The group's initial
fears are virtually all wolf-related, but as they move along, civilization itself becomes just as
foreboding, if not more so. Man vs. nature is just as old a struggle as man vs. beast, but the
former is a more substantial and dramatically rich one, and this film understands that.
One thing I liked is the way the film handles death. Carnahan tends to make it a moment of
genuine significance rather than plot - at least, after the first 20 minutes. He takes care not to
make his deaths too exciting, subduing the proceedings with a sense of quiet mourning or regret.
There's an underlying impulse to look away out of respect for the dead - or the dying. While I
was bothered by some of his near-incoherent editing choices during action scenes, the
filmmaking as a whole is pretty strong.
And without specifically giving anything away, I will say that there are ways the movie could
have imposed itself on the story - all in the name of formula - and yet, impressively enough, it
resists them. This deserves to be mentioned and commended.
Carnahan is an interesting case. The guy has unquestionable talent, but I've been waiting for him
to really break out for a decade now - ever since he came out with Narc, a great neo-noir crime
thriller that landed on my top 10 list for 2002. After that, there was a series of false starts and
aborted projects, followed by the absolutely terrible Smokin' Aces, and then 2010's The A-Team,
which actually wasn't all that bad but still not exactly worthy of his talents. The Grey is a step in
the right direction.
And what can I say about Neeson? Now that I think about it, it seems like he's been
underappreciated by everyone - myself included - after blending in so seamlessly as certain
character types over the years. But his body of work is impressive, and I can think of few actors
who could have nailed this role as perfectly as he does. I joked earlier about listening whenever
he talked, given how often he's played sage-like or god-like roles. Well, perhaps that wasn't
really a joke. After all, there aren't very many actors who can command our attention and respect
the way he does. In just one brief moment in The Grey, he makes the simplicity of a four-line
poem feel like a definitive comment on mankind.