***½ (out of four)
Joe Carnahan puts his post-Narc career back on course with the effective and unexpectedly spiritual The Grey, starring his A-Team lead Liam Neeson as another alpha male thrown into a life-or-death situation. Here, Neeson keeps his Irish brogue to play suicidal John Ottway, a hunter employed to kill the wolves that endanger an oil team in Alaska. Then, one fateful night during a blizzard, Ottway becomes one of seven drillers to survive a plane crash on their way home. Stranded in the snowy wilderness with little hope of rescue, Ottway takes charge to keep the men alive and get to safety, which becomes particularly difficult when the survivors realise they've attracted the attention of a vicious and persistent pack of grey wolves...
The Grey is your classic survivalist drama—owing a debt to everything from Alive (duly referenced), Cast Away and Jaws, to Predator and Pitch Black. It's man vs nature, which is something we've seen countless times, but this is one of the better examples of the sub-genre in some time. It helps that the relatively predicable storyline is buoyed by strong performances, and a potent air of existential anguish. At first, the title appears to elude to the genus of wolf that are stalking Ottway's own "pack", but I prefer to believe it's referencing the intermediate state between life (white) and death (black). Lives hang in the balance throughout this film, as any character could be attacked and mauled to death by an emboldened wolf any second. I haven't seen a superficially dumb film better itself in this way since Neil Marshall's spelunking horror The Descent—which crafted a similar atmosphere of chilly trepidation, albeit with 100% more oestrogen.
The direction from Carnahan is sharp and assured, most memorably in a bravura plane crash sequence (viewed from the vantage point of Ottway, bracing for impact across three seats). There were also some lovely visual touches scattered throughout, such as how Ottway is often lurched out of a tranquil dream when reality reasserts its grip, or how the dying are often comforted by poignant hallucinations of family members. The sound design and cinematography are also responsible for delivering much of the film's spectacle, menace, awe, and beauty. The villainous wolves, a mix of CGI and animatronics, are wisely used in moderation—often just an auditory threat of growls and howls, or cloaked in darkness with their silvery eyes hovering in the twilight.
Neeson embraces his best role since Taken, and it's fascinating to see how the autumn of his career's been marked with high-concept movies that, in some ways, have a straight-to-video feel about them. He brings gravitas and subtlety to the stanch Ottway, which helps pull his character out of a few eye-rolling moments (like his wistful memories of a poetry-loving father back in Ireland), and it seems more than likely The Grey's focus on the people left behind when loved ones die spoke to the actor—who suffered the tragic loss of his wife not long ago.
A moment when Ottway wails in anger and fury at God's apathy, head raised to a cloudy and indifferent sky, spoke strongly to my belief Neeson saw something deeper in the script than the B-movie logline suggests. I did, too.
directed by Joe Carnahan / written by Joe Carnahan & Ian MacKenzie Jeffers (based on the short story "Ghost Walker" by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) / starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie & James Badge Dale / 117 mins.