The hunger for otherworldly explanation resonates most when sudden and extreme circumstances strip away society’s usual medley of concerns. Survival films, from Robinson Crusoe to Cast Away, deal with the dilemma, and The Grey, a sharp man versus wolf saga ripe with classic chase scenes and sobering confessions, carries on this tradition proudly. Yet the mention of God (and salvation) in Joe Carnahan’s striking action film is merely a safety blanket that quickly withers under the pressure of doubt and regret. What’s left behind is deep-seeded trauma in men whose masochistic relationship with life gains focus only when they take their last breath. It’s a clarity that stems from the juxtaposition of bitter cold against warm memories slowly slipping into the void.
Set in a distant Alaskan hell where the devil deals in walls of snow, epic mountainsides, and rampaging beasts, The Grey follows a familiar narrative trajectory: “men unfit for mankind” survive a brutal plane crash only to be pitted against the mortal realities of mother nature. Ottway (Liam Neeson), employed as a sniper by an oil outfit to protect employees from beasts of the northern wild, attempts to rally the few survivors around a plan of action despite the below-freezing temperatures. Hope of rescue is soon dashed by inclement weather and the ghostly howls of predatory wolves descending on the crash site. This isn’t the call of the wild; it’s a piercing scream.
The group of roughnecks, including a foul-mouthed scavenger named Diaz (the excellent Frank Grillo), is mostly a motley crew of familiar movie personalities that we expect to self-destruct. But each characterization, however short-lived, evolves in surprising ways when The Grey turns increasingly animalistic and dire. In this sense, Carnahan inverses the traditional Lord of the Flies-type scenario that says men turn on each other when forcibly immersed in nature’s pressure-cooker. Instead, elemental and instinctual realities in The Grey are incredibly complex, connecting man’s fears of inadequacy with a poetic sense of peace and sacrifice colliding in the blistering wind.
Aside from the obvious harshness of the weather, so much of The Grey is concerned with the power of close proximity, whether it’s the moment Ottway gives a mortally wounded man a very frank health assessment or the countless close-ups of facial hair and animal fur matted with dirt and blood. There are also fleeting dream sequences that are jarring in the faux-warmth they bring to the hypothermic conditions. But it’s the masterful opening sequence where Ottway muses in grizzled voice-over a soliloquy of Shakespearian intensity that remains the finest example of Carnahan’s resistance to Hollywood convention. With this incredibly intimate introduction, we not only get a feel for Ottway’s burning internal conflicts, but also why his troubled and weathered soul is worth following into the abyss. His is a beautiful, lasting restlessness.
-The Grey is now playing in wide release