The Grey: Man Vs. Wild

by Ethan Alter January 27, 2012 6:00 am
<i>The Grey</i>: Man Vs. Wild

Early on in Joe Carnahan's gritty survival tale The Grey, there's a moment that's so serenely peaceful, I almost didn't want it to end, especially knowing what was to come. The scene in question takes place aboard a chartered plane that's flying a crew of oil company grunts to a drilling station in the far reaches of Alaska. Before the aircraft lifted off into the friendly skies, the guys were laughing, talking and busting each other's chops, as if they were in a locker room instead of a mid-size jet. Now that the plane's at cruising altitude though, they're all nabbing some much-needed shuteye. The cabin lights are dimmed, tray tables are up and in a locked position and the passengers are quietly slumbering, their breath misting in the chilled air. It's a beautifully evocative moment -- perhaps the best single scene Carnahan has ever staged -- one that immediately establishes an aura of calm and safety.

It also happens to be the last such moment we'll experience for the duration of the film. A minute later, naptime comes to a swift, horrific end when the plane banks sharply as shouts are heard from the flight deck and the cockpit door swings open to reveal sparks flying off the controls. As panic sets in, one man, Ottway (Liam Neeson), a grieving widower -- who, just a few scenes earlier, stuck a gun in his mouth and almost pulled the trigger -- wraps all the seat buckles in his otherwise empty row around his body and clutches on for dear life as the plane falls out of the sky and crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness. Only seven men walk away from the wreckage of the plane, including Ottway, family man Talget (Dermot Mulroney), quiet Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) and mouthy rebel Diaz (Frank Grillo) and they're immediately confronted by the harsh realities of their new environment. Aside from being miles and miles from any sign of civilization, they have to contend with sub-zero temperatures, blinding snowstorms and, worst of all, a roving pack of hungry wolves.

Rather than wait around for a rescue that will never come -- and becoming wolf food in the process -- Ottway appoints himself the group's leader and escorts his fellow survivors across the tundra, bound in a direction that he hopes will lead them to some kind of safe harbor. But any hope that these guys will make it is steadily extinguished as their numbers dwindle one by one and the way forward grows tougher and tougher. In other words, don't go into The Grey expecting a rousing tribute to the human spirit conquering the elements as in Alive and Gary Paulsen's classic teen novel, Hatchet. No, Carnahan is working firmly in the tradition of darker man vs. wild tales like Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man and Dan Simmons' The Terror (minus that chilling book's supernatural elements) where all the gumption and optimism in the world can't save you from the cruel mistress known as Mother Nature.

As someone who didn't particularly care for Carnahan's previous two films -- the hyperkinetic, logic-challenged assassin's ball known as Smokin' Aces and the completely unnecessary big-screen version of The A-Team -- I was surprised by how strong and sturdy The Grey proved to be. (Fans of Carnahan's sophomore directorial effort Narc, the movie that first put him on the map back in 2002, might have suspected he had a film like this one in him, but my own memories of that Jason Patric/Ray Liotta cop drama are fairly dim.) A good deal of the credit has to go to Neeson, who commands the screen with his usual ferocious intensity that's made all the more gripping by the real life parallels to his character. (In case you don't recall, the actor's wife, Natasha Richardson, died unexpectedly following a skiing accident two years ago. There are several points in The Grey where you can't tell how much of the pain and torment you're seeing in Neeson's eyes is acting.) Those expecting another enjoyably junky action vehicle like Taken or Unknown may be caught off guard by just how grim Neeson and the film itself becomes over the course of its 117-minute runtime.

As spare and stripped down as The Grey already is, Carnahan could potentially have pushed himself a little further. There early scenes are marred by several forced "getting to know you" dialogue exchanges and the macho navel-gazing threatens to reach Iron John levels of obnoxiousness at times. And while the decision to shoot much of the movie on location in the wild was a good one (there's only one scene that was obviously filmed against a green screen or some other kind of backdrop), it apparently didn't leave a lot of money over for the wolves, which are performed by a combination of digital and animatronic lupines that are only intermittently convincing. But the director does a skillful job depicting the film's central battle between man and nature; in this landscape, death is always one step behind the men and when it strikes, it strikes quickly and without mercy. Gripping right up to the deliberately ambiguous final shot (stick around for a post-credits epilogue if you must, but I was entirely satisfied with Carnahan's original choice of ending), The Grey is anything but a tedious slog through the wilderness.

Click here to read our interview with The Grey director Joe Carnahan

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