THIS REVIEW DOES CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS
When The Grey opens, we meet Ottway, yet another of Liam Neeson’s derivative tough-man characters he’s been unleashing on weary movie audiences since Taken and Unknown. He is a member of an oil pipe line crew in the frozen wastelands of Alaska and his ice-water-in-the-veins, super tough-man job involves protecting his comrades from wolves with a sniper rifle. The crew itself is made up of the dregs of society; Ottway describes them (and himself) as “men unfit for mankind.”
We first see them engaged in a huge bar brawl, but Ottway abstains and remains above the fray, obsessing over a stereotypical wife from the past. Something happened, and now Ottway is alone. (Ottway’s wife, by the way, being the only woman in the movie aside from a flight attendant on the plane.) Knowing what’s in store for him in the rest of the movie, Ottway takes a knee in the parking lot and wisely sticks his rifle in his mouth, but the sound of howling wolves stays his hand.
It’s not just suicide attempts that the wolves ruin; it’s the entire movie. Following a very well shot plane crash that perfectly captures the disorientation and fear associated with being in such a disaster, the first half of The Grey relies on the formula of having wolves attack and kill one member of their party, the wolves backing off, followed by an emotional exchange between the men. Rinse and repeat. Emotions among the sausage fest of survival are all over the place: they go from watching their friends die in one scene to talking about the lousy sex they had before the trip in the next.
The cast does their best with the dialogue in these bonding scenes, with Frank Grillo winning us over as he transforms from complete douchebag to someone we care about. Dallas Roberts works well as the soft, voice of reason type and Dermot Mulroney says more with a few well placed glances than Neeson does for the entire movie. Despite their best efforts, director Joe Carnahan keeps throwing CGI wolves at them. Action maestro Carnahan, director of The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, developed the screen play with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who wrote the short story the movie is based on, “The Ghost Walker.” It’s no surprise that this story comes from another medium. It’s just not paced right for a film. The frequent attacks from the wolves, and their subsequent ceasing later on, never feels threatening. It’s just “here come the wolves again. I wonder who they’ll kill.”
Sure, at times the wolves are scary, but that’s mostly the result of overtly loud sound effects that make the wolves’ breathing sound like jet exhaust. Ottway is the resident wolf expert, so he’s in charge. But he was taking the leadership role before they even knew wolves would be involved. Make no mistake, Ottway is the only one there who could even flirt with the idea of leading. Grillo’s Diaz is initially content to activate a GPS distress signal watch and sit around getting drunk until they get rescued and steals from the recently deceased. A lot of his early behavior endangers the others and you wonder why Ottway doesn’t just kill the guy and leave him for the wolves, but it’s good that he doesn’t; in a scene towards the end in which Diaz, injured and exhausted, elects to just have a seat and gaze at some mountains while waiting for the wolves to come for him. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking scene and an example of things done right.
The real disappointment of this film is that the great elements are there, but they’re so obscured by wolf feces that they don’t register. It’s possible the wolves were meant to represent death. The alpha of the pack (essentially the Big Bad) is all black, like the Grim Reaper. There are those among the survivors who let death take them (Diaz), but others (Ottway) will fight to the bitter end. There are some problems with that interpretation, however, since so many other elements are forced in. A short poem written by Ottway’s father also figures in, but it’s not quite clear in what context. Does it mean that Ottway has gained new appreciation for his father’s viewpoint or does he just relate to the words more now that he’s in this horrible situation? Aside from that, the fact that all of the characters are male seems important; especially since they lower their guards as time goes on and become more emotionally open with each other. Ottway admits to being completely terrified while Diaz staunchly denies it, only to later on drop the act and admit the truth. Questions of what it means to be a man are raised, but abandoned quickly. The wolf attacks do drop off in the second half of the movie and it’s then when it’s at its best. They eventually return in time for a ridiculously over the top ending that threatens to eliminate all of the emotional poignancy that was developed in the favor of action movie swagger.
There was a good movie here about trying to survive the circumstances of their crash and the seemingly objective weather of the Alaskan tundra, but wolves got shoved up its ass and everything else got forgotten. Some of the things the characters say about the nature of life and death are very poignant, but are completely lost by parts of the film that just focus on how bad-ass Liam Neeson is. It’s a shame; it could have been a real think-piece, but instead it ended up another entry in the Survival/Horror genre and not a particularly innovative one at that.
I tried to give this film credit, but the themes are all over the place. Is it about accepting your inevitable demise? Is it about respecting how dangerous nature really is? Is it about scary wolves? The more you think about it, the less cohesive it seems, but chances are you’ll stop thinking about it once you leave the theater. In this economy, I would advise you to worry less about The Grey and hang on to The Green.
The Grey will be in theaters everywhere January 27th.