The Grey is survival horror, which means its structure is mapped to the same beats as straight-ahead porn: lengthy scenes of exposition punctuated by explosions of flesh and mayhem that arrive suddenly and end messily. Director Joe Carnahan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers’ shory story “Ghost Walker”) is acutely aware of these rhythms, and he knows how to get the most shock value out of jump scares, chase scenes, and moments of eerie quiet before the storm. Yet for all its predictability — these characters might as well be named First to Die, Probably Next to Die, Guy Who Will Almost Make it to the End, and so on — the film is a remarkably solid thriller thanks to the work of Liam Neeson in the lead role and a script that often deftly explores the way men who are pressed into mutual service by circumstance will find ways to connect with each other in a manner they’d have previously thought impossible. What I’m saying is that the film isn’t just survival horror, or rather, that it does what the genre ideally should do in all instances, which is to find small moments in which to examine the fragility of life, even if it means doing so within the heightened reality of a cinematic thrill ride.
The hook of the movie is simple: Ottway (Neeson) and a band of other oil company contractors are flying home from Anchorage, Alaska, to the central 48 when their plane goes down in the frozen wild. It can be tough to present air accidents in fresh ways on film, thanks to popular modern takes like the fantasy sequence from Fight Club or the grand-scale chaos of “Lost,” but Carnahan keeps the energy up by shifting fluidly between tight close-ups shot with handheld cameras that lend a normalcy to the action in the plane’s cabin and slow, steady, rigid shots that play off diminished sound design to underscore the feeling that something extremely unpleasant is about to take place. Before the crash happens, the men are idly chatting or sleeping, but Carnahan fades out the sound of dialogue and lets a small mechanical whine build in the darkness. It’s a wonderfully focused way to draw you in and increase the tension, and the best moments in the film are the ones where Carnahan strips away the madness or gore and simply lets a few simple heartbeats’ worth of time do the talking.
Soon enough, the plane crashes, torn in two by an unknown mechanical failure. Ottway comes to in a barren field before stumbling over a ridge to discover the burned remnants of the fuselage and the handful of men who managed to survive the impact. Survival movies have a laser-like focus on the immediate, and as Ottway unofficially takes charge of the group, no one bothers much with talking about how to get home, what to do when they get there, or how to signal for help. The goal is just to survive in the freezing wilderness. But in addition to their dwindling supplies and fuel, the men face a greater threat: the roaming wolves that start showing up at night. Ottway, who had come to Alaska as a contract hunter tasked with sniping any wolves who came near the company’s camp, takes it on himself to guide the men through the wild in what he hopes is the direction of civilization. As you can probably guess, the wolves have other plans, and things do not work out for the men as well as they’d have hoped.
Carnahan brings on fleshy scenes of death with clockwork precision — things get quiet, one guy starts to look a bit too confident in his odds of survival, a wolf slams into him with a corresponding bass-heavy thud on the soundtrack, slaughter commences, repeat —but these are usually the worst scenes thanks to some regrettably cartoonish-looking wolves. It’s understandable that he’d want to use CGI to render the animals, fake wolves being a lot easier to control and direct than real ones, but the animated ones we actually see feel faker than fake. They’re at once larger than life and lighter than air, lacking even the illusion of weight and heft whenever they’re called to run after a fleeing man or share the screen with a human for more than an instant. Cutaways to close-ups of real animals work much better, even if they’re disturbing for entirely different reasons: Carnahan and crew bought a number of wolf carcasses from a Canadian trapper near the filming site and used them as props. The most effective moments involving the wolves are when they’re used as a palpable but almost invisible threat, howling in the distance or stalking the men just outside the range of their pitiful fires, the wolves’ eyes glowing in the dying light.
As the leader of the gang, Neeson’s the focus here, and this is his most relatable role of his recent spate of early-year action-thrillers. Taken was a slick ride, though Neeson’s character there was just a few stops shy of an actual superhero — and the less said about the brain-dead Unknown, the better — but here, he plays a man capable of being wounded. More than that: Ottway can actually get tired, doubt himself, and express emotions beyond simple vengeance and cold drive to live. The other men are sketched out enough so we get a sense of who they are, by which I mean, how they act under extreme stress. Dallas Roberts’ Hendrick, the group doctor, is quiet but determined, while Dermot Mulroney’s Talget is an able No. 2 for Ottway. The surviving men are all fathers, too, and they share a few moments around a fire one night talking about their old lives, giving eulogies for the people they used to be and commiserating over the hell they’re facing together. When it works, The Grey is a solid action-based drama that balances extreme shocks with a genuine understanding of humanity.
The film’s real successes come in the moments between the sporadic wolf attacks, as the men bunker down or debate hiking to a potentially safer location. Carnahan is known for his occasionally frenzied approach to action — The A-Team perked along nicely, while Smokin’ Aces felt like a really bad acid trip — but here he manages to hold still long enough to look death in the face and capture some truly gripping, almost draining, experiences. One particular moment from early in the film stands out. As Ottway and the other men stagger through the fuselage, looking for survivors, they find one of the men badly wounded and bleeding from the gut. The man begs for relief, or at least good news, but Ottway gives him the truth: He’s going to die, and soon. The men quiet down as Ottway takes the man’s hand and talks him through the process, telling him to wait for the warmth to slip over him and think of the people he loves. It’s a reverential moment, and some of the men shed tears free of irony or anger as one of their own slips away. We don’t really know the man — his name is mentioned but instantly erased by the changing focus of the scene — but that’s not quite the point. It’s a moment designed to say: Bad things are about to happen, and the best these guys can do is try to fight it with dignity. That’s a noble goal for what could have been just another survival horror bloodfest; even more noble for the grace with which it’s achieved.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.