Early buzz about The Grey seemed to indicate that it wasn't just a movie about a guy who stabs wolves. Reviewers used the broad word "deep" to explain the themes of the piece. I suppose I left the film with the same word rattling around in my head. "Deep" or at least an attempt to seem as such. It certainly was in part about a guy who stabs wolves, but there was a certain philosophical element to it all.
The first ten minutes really set the tone for the next 115 or so minutes of the movie. We meet an older man named Ottway (Liam Neeson) who works as a security specialist for a drilling company in Alaska. A montage is shown where he walks around the complex and talks cryptically about his past and more specifically about his current job. The grainy environment that surrounds him is dark and barren, which is pretty much how Ottway might seem to the audience as well as those around him. Along with his fellow workers, he boards a plane to leave the complex only to crash due to inclimate weather. They soon find themselves in the wilderness as they are hunted by wolves whose den they seem to have landed near.
Like many survival films, such as Tamahori and Mamet's The Edge, the exterior conflict is somewhat eclipsed by the characters' interior conflicts. The film is tackling issues of an existential nature as tension only mounts due to interpersonal disagreements and issues of life-and-death. Most interestingly is how the film deals with the issue of faith. The idea that there is an all-powerful being that is controlling everything and if you are good then you are protected, but if you are bad than in this case, you are literally thrown to the wolves. In a religious, more specifically Catholic sense of metaphors, these characters are in hell (albeit a frigid one) and must fight their way out.
This is the second collaboration between actor Liam Neeson and writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces) as they previously worked together on The A-Team. Carnahan has adapted a short story and shaped it into the elements that I described above. I was struck by the intensity of this film as it was more reminiscent to Narc than any of his other works. The plane crash is a great example of how visually intense the film can become, but perhaps the wolf attacks are more demonstrative of how he handle the suspense in the story.
Sequences where characters are discussing things are shot like a typical conversation, but suddenly and unexpectedly a wolf will attack. Out of nowhere, it would just happen. This created such a sense of dread that I've rarely felt in most horror-thriller films. It's one thing to have a whodunit story take place, but to actually feel the danger the characters are feeling is something I haven't experienced as of late. The wolves were created with a certain amount of CGI that of course makes one take note of certain unrealistic qualities about the digital animals, but the CGI was unique enough to really capture the instinctual and primal nature of the species.
As for Neeson, his take on Ottway is full of anger (existential and physical) and a struggle to stay hopeful. Looking over his filmography, you see quite a range in his work. Like any major actor he has had his flops, but his successes are quite memorable. Even though he has always remained versatile and open in his selections, ever since his success as Bryan Mills in Taken, he has certainly taken on more physically demanding jobs. I don't see this as a problem since he still at least tries to play a character with something to say despite genre conventions. I don't think his days of portrayals the likes Oskar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey are gone, but he certainly can play the raging action star with more believability than say Dwayne Johnson or Jason Statham at times.
So far, I've been just making observations and sharing some thoughts that came to mind, but I've yet to really express my opinions on the movie. I've been hinting at it, but The Grey is basically a movie that is expressive and rare, but it is still a widely released film that stays within the 'wilderness survival'-genre and is therefore still within the positive and negative confines of such a story.
You have your typical cast of characters that can feel cliched (perhaps too strong of a word) such as the angry rebel (played Frank Grillo) or the more calm voice of reason (Dallas Roberts) or the guy out of his element (Dermot Mulroney) etc. etc. etc. There has to be the scenes where they come to blows, where all is placed on the line, where one is too selfish or too selfless, their numbers dwindle, some die with a sense of accomplishment, others find redemption...
Nothing is wrong with this per-se, it just doesn't feel unique enough to me to warrant it as something I can really respond to without any hesitations that I've already experienced one too many elements of this film in the past. In fact, the movie is very easy to predict even without being an expert in the writings of Joseph Campbell. Actually, the abrupt ending isn't really that much of a surprise if you really understand Ottway's journey. Then again, I still appreciate a film that tries to say something instead of one that is empty and that places The Grey in my good graces.