Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
I want to start out this review by being very clear about something: you are being lied to about The Grey. I know there’s a marketing push wrapped around the idea of Liam Neeson fighting wolves. I know that the 59 year old Neeson is somehow post-Taken one of the most believable and bankable action stars for a certain type of movie in Hollywood. I know that the idea of fighting wolves sounds really cool. The Grey is not that movie, though. Sorry. It’s a good movie, but it’s not an action movie, and you need to know that up front. If you’re not interested, suddenly, check out Haywire, which is probably still around in your theater and is a very good action movie. Everyone else? Let’s talk about The Grey.
The Grey is a movie about a group of oil men, including one John Ottway, played by Liam Neeson. He’s a hunter, kept around to shoot wolves before they can attack the men working out in the field. He’s a desperate man, at the end of his capacity for living. We meet him writing a letter that undoubtedly will double as a suicide note to a woman who left him a long time ago. He leaves the warm, vibrant, rough and tumble base where he works to go stand outside and puts his hunting rifle in his mouth. About to pull the trigger, a wolf howls, and Ottway raises his rifle instinctively against the unknown threat.
He instead finds himself put on a plane with a bunch of other men to go to another job. Ottway is standoffish, the rest of the men are filled with the swaggering machismo of men who live in too close quarters too far from civilization. Ottway manages to sleep through most of the turbulence of the flight, waking up only as everything goes straight to hell and the plane goes down. Ottway wakes up in the Alaskan wastes, one of only eight survivors from the crash, left with nothing but what meager supplies they can gather from the wreckage. They set up a ramshackle base camp, discussing what they should do while they wait for a rescue. The decision is taken out of their hands as a pack of wolves surrounds the camp, forcing them to flee for hopefully safer ground.
The Grey is first and foremost a survivalist tale in the truest sense. It’s about doing what it takes to survive in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, against a dangerous adversary, and what happens when you fail. Men die, often in horrible and brutal ways; the movie doesn’t offer the pleasure of shying away from it. It’s not romantic, the rugged outdoorsman triumphing over the wilds. These are scared people who are probably doomed trying to come to grips with that eventuality and doing what they can to delay it. It starts grim and only goes downhill from there, as wolves and the environment start whittling away at their numbers.
But even beyond that, The Grey is more than just a straight survivor tale the likes of Alive! or even 127 Hours, which went out of its way to explore the concepts of psyche and reflect on the life and dreams of its hero. What The Grey explores is the despair and the hope of these men, of all humans, through an allegory of survival and danger and death. It’s a movie about faith and nihilism. It is not just about these men outrunning the wolves on their heels, but about the choices all people face presented with mortality.
The first hint is the wolves. The wolves are like no wolves I have ever seen on film before, dark beasts that exist in shadow and sound like demons coming after the men. The eyes loom in the darkness and disappear just as quickly, the wolves are massive, as big as the men they’re fighting, seen only a paw or an eye or a snout at a time. The wolves quickly become more than just a pack of hunting animals, they become death itself, mythological Fenrir from the mists of our earliest legends come to bring decisive, ultimate fate upon all of our heroes. They are powerful and terrifying as a suggestion more than a reality.
From the outset, the group gathers up all the wallets of the men who have dies. When each of them dies after, they always pick up the wallets. These become totemic in nature, the soul of a man imbued in this thing he carried with him, his identity and his most treasured items in picture form, brought along as the burden of memory these men carry. It’s done as a token of respect, initially, but it eventually becomes the desperate cry of remembrance and legacy that these men–who struggle to form the complex thoughts necessary to even tackle their crisis–carry with them in the blind hope that someone of them remains even after they all surely perish.
And it is not as if our characters don’t see the predicament they are in. Huddled around the fire that keeps the danger at bay, they talk about death and about fate. Discussions of religion come up, whether they were fated to survive by some deity or if this is just the blind chance of the universe. Every man struggles to explain the reason why they continue on even if they don’t believe, be it family members or dreams of achievement or even just hard-headed stubbornness. Everyone, that is, except Ottway, who was ready to kill himself until the crash and becomes the de facto leader of this group fighting for their lives. Why bother fighting off death now when he was ready to embrace it before? Is it simply human nature to fight for survival? Is turning and embracing death when one wishes for it the right thing to do?
These are the kinds of questions examined in The Grey, which carries on with the tension and horror of its survivalism with the nuance of a piece on faith and spirituality and the nature of man. It does so with much of the grace and power of a movie even as seemingly unrelated as The Tree of Life, just told through stronger narrative and higher tensions. If that seems ridiculous, ponder for a second where the climaxes of the film fall. It’s not in any great action, or big battle, but in Ottway confronting a God he isn’t sure is there. Of the potential non-answer he gets, only trees and sunlight and a final, desperate collapse. It’s a movie about asking big questions, and received answers that are more mystery than satisfaction, meant to be mulled over and reflected on.
It’s a hell of a thing to be wrapped in a movie sold as Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher. But it is also, in some dim way, also that movie, the core concept turned transcendental. It’s the genre turned into art: technical art, with not only great cinematography, but some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard; but thematic art as well, with themes that elevate the straightforward tale to something of legend, a deep myth of humanity on the same ground as even movies as ancient and revered as The Seventh Seal. The Grey is by far the first great movie of 2012, and is the great surprise of a winter season so often as bleak in the theater as it is outside.