Director Joe Carnahan delivers a masterful existential thriller draped in the warming cloak of a snowbound survival story with The Grey. For audiences willing to wrap their heads around its provocative yet bleak premise, the result is completely transfixing from the opening image of the monolithic Alaskan mountains to the profound final moment. By spending as much time subverting macho movie tropes and exploring the psychology of survival as they do ratcheting up the tension while the ranks of the desperate men slowly dwindle, Carnahan and co-screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also penned the short story on which The Grey was based), offer a poignant meditation on the indifference of nature in a world where mankind often (falsely) believes that he is in control of his own fate.
The story begins as solitary oil-rig employee and expert marksman Ottway (Liam Neeson) carefully takes aim at a wolf charging his co-workers, and pulls the trigger just as the beast prepares to pounce. Tormented by vivid memories of a long-lost love, he writes her a heartfelt letter before boarding an airplane for a flight that will never reach its destination. When the plane crashes deep in the most remote reaches of the Alaskan wilderness, Ottway and a handful of survivors -- including Diaz (Frank Grillo), Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Henrick (Dallas Roberts), Flannery (Joe Anderson), Burke (Nonso Anozie), and Hernandez (Ben Bray) -- must fight for their lives against not only the harsh arctic elements, but a pack of viciously territorial wolves.
The eternal struggle between man and nature has been a prominent theme in popular literature ever since the invention of the printing press. Later, with the advent of film, storytellers began dutifully inventing ways to translate this conflict to the big screen by placing moviegoers in the position of those unfortunate souls who must face their own mortality without the comfort of loved ones or the convenience of modern medicine. Carnahan and Jeffers not only accomplish this feat with striking intensity in The Grey, but ambitiously delve even deeper by exploring the resulting issues of faith and morality that can arise under such dire circumstances; as thrilling as some of the scenes in The Grey are, Carnahan and Jeffers aren’t simply interested in the mechanics and dynamics of survival, but in presenting the harsh realities of nature without pulling any punches.
Meanwhile, by featuring a character who openly admits his fear early in the film, a pivotal scene in which three characters reveal their first names, and a quiet moment of reflection involving a stash of salvaged wallets, Carnahan and Jeffers cleverly undermine the gung-ho machismo in a way that favors humanity over cliched storytelling. Yes, the wolves in The Grey are positively terrifying as they methodically stalk the survivors from just outside the light of dying fires, and when the massive alpha male reveals himself, even John Landis and Joe Dante’s lycanthropes would run for the trees. But it’s the ever-encroaching internal darkness that the storytellers are ultimately concerned with, and it’s this aspect of the film that lingers with us long after the eerie memories of snarled teeth and gleaming eyes fade.
It’s easy to view nature as purely vicious, yet to recognize the savage beauty in the way that the cycle of life unfolds can strangely be somewhat comforting. Depending on your ability to see the story from this perspective, Carnahan’s gripping yet grim thriller is either a masterpiece of reflective cinema, or a bleak, inexcusably nihilistic bid to transcend movie tropes by alienating the audience. But while watching The Grey, it pays to remember that wherever we may roam, we’re all heading for the same destination. If you find comfort rather than consternation in that fact, odds are The Grey won’t leave you cold.