The Grey (2011)
Joe Carahan’s The Grey (2011) is the story of a group of oil rig workers who survive a plane crash in the wilderness of Alaska, only to find out they’ve landed right in the territory of a ravenous pack of wolves looking to assert their dominance. It was promoted as an action film similar to Liam Neeson’s other recent hits like Taken and The A-Team, but it’s closer to art house fare, with lots of existential ponderings in the face of certain death. All I can say is, if you’re ever having a bad day, this is a movie that will put everything into perspective, and take you into an entirely different state of mind.
The Grey begins in the remote reaches of northern Alaska, with the main character Ottway (Neeson) explaining in voiceover that he works for a drilling operation, and his job is to protect the workers from the local wildlife, including bears and wolves. Soon, it becomes obvious that Ottway is disconnected from everything around him. He enters a bar full of roughnecks and seems completely oblivious to everything around him, even as a fight breaks out between some of the men. Eventually, we realize this voiceover is really an anguished letter that Ottway is writing to his wife, who he misses dearly and constantly daydreams about.
His letter takes a dark turn as he leaves the bar, and we see him stick his rifle in his mouth. But then the faraway sound of a wolf howling stops him from pulling the trigger.
Ottway is then bound for Anchorage. He and several crew members pile onto a small commuter plane, where Ottway makes a point of ignoring the rest of the men. As the plane takes off, we get introduced to the workers, some of whom are exactly the kind of macho loudmouths you’d expect to see. A while later, the plane hits some heavy turbulence, and begins to malfunction, and we get a pretty realistic and intense crash sequence that might make you reconsider stepping onto your next flight.
Cut to Ottway waking up and lying alone in the snow. He quickly realizes what happened and runs to the wreckage of the plane. There’s carnage everywhere, but Ottway manages to find a few surviving workers. One of them has suffered fatal injuries and is about to die, and Ottway calmly talks him through it and tells him to think of his daughter. It’s an uncomfortable, sobering moment for an action film, but it definitely sets the tone for the rest of the story.
The seven remaining survivors band together, and quickly try to find anything they can to make a fire. Ottway catches a glimpse of some movement nearby, and believes he may have found another survivor. However, the movement is actually coming from a wolf feasting on one of the bodies. Ottway is attacked, and manages to scare off the wolf, but thanks to his wildlife expertise he knows that this is only going to earn them the attention of the rest of the pack.
With the men aware of their unwelcome companions, they decide to take shifts watching over their improvised camp site. By the time morning comes around, they realize that another of their crew has been killed by a wolf. But in this case, they didn’t eat the guy. Ottway explains that the wolves aren’t killing them out of hunger; they’re killing them because they’ve intruded into the wolves’ territory. This causes a lot of the guys to panic, but Ottway formulates a plan to leave the crash site and head towards the trees, in the hopes that they can find protection from the wolves.
The group begins to bond as they travel and try to find ways to survive the harsh weather, lack of food, conflicting personalities, and dangerous pack of wolves on their heels. The men see death staring them in the face and there’s talk about spirituality and the afterlife, with one of the men believing he’ll see his family in heaven, while the others (including Ottway) firmly believe that when you’re dead, you’re simply gone.
Despite Ottway’s plan, the men still end up getting picked off one by one, succumbing to further attacks from the wolves and from injuries sustained during the crash and the ensuing struggle to survive. Eventually, Ottway is the only survivor left. He flashes back to his wife again, and a brief shot of an IV drip going into her arm suggests that she actually died at some point, and the letter he was writing to her was really a suicide note.
He looks to the sky and angrily asks for a sign or help from a higher power, but there’s no response. Instead, he ends up stumbling into the wolves’ den and has to take matters into his own hands. In an ending that sharply divided audiences, we see Ottway ready to fight the alpha male of the wolf pack. He lunges towards the wolf, and then… cut to black. There’s a post-credits shot that presumably shows both the wolf and Ottway lying together and dying, but this is also left ambiguous.
I can understand how someone expecting a standard action movie would see the ending as a total letdown. The trailers promised a big final fight and never delivered. But clearly The Grey was meant to be something more than what the ads suggested. It’s really about a man who had all but given up on life finding the will to go on and go down fighting. In that respect, closing the movie with a silly brawl between man and wolf would have been totally unnecessary.
Reportedly, Carnahan actually filmed the final fight scene, even though (according to him) he had no intention of putting it in the movie. Those who disliked the abrupt ending may be even more disappointed to pick up the DVD and find out the fight isn’t even included as a deleted scene. One does have to wonder if, given the less-than-stellar wolf effects seen elsewhere, the fight got cut purely because it turned out looking terrible.
If you’re familiar with Joe Carnahan’s other work, like The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, then you’ll realize right away that this film is a major departure. There’s not a whole lot of action going on, and not much humor. The film is more of a survivalist tale and intimate character study, with only short bursts of action, which might leave some disappointed. On the other hand, Carnahan does an amazing job of taking a step away from his typical style and creating a film that will really draw you in.
Viewers are shown a group of guys who obviously come from very different walks of life, as they not only have to quickly come to terms with a pretty traumatic event, but also bond together simply to survive. The scenes where the guys are just talking are fantastic. The dialogue is great and it shows how an intense experience can make total strangers seem like old friends.
The guys even collect the victims’ wallets, almost like dog tags, to have something to show their families if they ever make it back. Of course, it doesn’t make much logical sense—if they make it back, they can just point out to their rescuers where the wreckage and everyone’s personal belongings are—but after a while, we realize how crucial it is for the men to show respect to their fallen friends in this way. It seems to be one of the few things keeping them sane.
One can also feel the total sense of desperation when Ottway breaks down and asks for help from a higher power. It’s an incredible scene, in an awful and depressing way.
Unlike other films that go the green screen route, they actually shot this film out in the snow and freezing temperatures and it shows. You really feel as if you’re out there with the guys battling the elements, and the snow and wind only heighten the feelings of dread and tension. The scenery is amazing to look at, and even among all the horror and gore, there’s plenty of memorable imagery. For instance, there’s a scene where one of the survivors is picked off by a wolf, and a paw mark in the snow slowly fills with blood. There’s also a chilling scene where the crew looks out into the darkness and glowing pairs of eyes appear in the dark, one at a time.
On the other hand, the wolves themselves are not terribly realistic. We only see them in the dark and in brief cutaways, and it’s obvious why. They’re clearly CGI mixed with animatronics, and they make the film look more like a B movie whenever they show up. You’d think they could have done a little better given the budget, but thankfully, that’s the only real flaw in this film.
The Grey is certainly a refreshing break from Liam Neeson’s recent action films. It shows Neeson’s range as an actor, taking the gruff badass stereotype he’s been playing of late and shading it with strong emotions of grief and loss. And the film is a lot darker and depressing than the action film that audiences went in expecting, but by no means does a great film have to be uplifting.
And while you’re free to watch it without spoilers, I think this is one film where the expectation-defying ending works a little bit better when you know what’s coming. While this film is no classic of the genre, it’s undoubtedly a lot deeper and more introspective than a movie about Liam Neeson fighting wolves has any right to be.