It will be interesting to see how general audiences take to "The Grey," which posits itself as a somewhat generic survivalist adventure (you know, the way much of the mainstream likes their cinema) before transforming into something much larger and deeper. An alternately ruminative and boldly cathartic thriller that uses a basic formula as cover for exploring mortality and faith, the film arguably bites off more than it can chew. If being overly ambitious is a criticism, though, it's one of the most valiant for a movie to have. Wasting little time in directly name-referencing its closest cinematic kin, 1993's "Alive," "The Grey" presses on to remind of 1993's "Cliffhanger," 1997's "The Edge," 2010's "Frozen
," and, most unlikely of all, 2011's "Melancholia
." The latter film, directed by Lars von Trier, took a brazenly atheistic stance on the end of the world, and "The Grey" does the same as a group of blue-collar guys are faced with a life-or-death situation that seems to have neither a point nor a God to save them.
On their trip back home to Anchorage, an oil-drilling team is dealt a nasty blow when their airplane goes down in the remote Alaskan wilderness. John Ottway (Liam Neeson), one of only seven survivors, steps up as a natural leader, putting away his tortured consciencehe had come close to taking his own life the night beforeto suddenly fight to live. While the group figures out its next steps in dealing with the harsh elementssub-zero temperatures and lots of snowa more immediate threat comes in the form of a ceaseless pack of hungry wolves. With their numbers ever dwindling, they begin a trek that they hope will lead them to rescue. Then again, they might just be fooling themselves.
To lay out the basic plot of "The Grey" is to make it sound like an uninspired traipse through familiar territory, an amalgamation of a dozen other movies tossed together. What a synopsis cannot describe is just how skillfully made it is, and how unexpectedly evocative it gradually becomes. Whatever writer-director Joe Carnahan has done to better his filmmaking in the short time since his last picture, 2010's lousy "The A-Team
," it pays off here with a project leaps and bounds better than anything else he's worked on. Collaborating on the script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (2007's "Death Sentence
"), based on his short story "Ghost Walker," Carnahan puts blood, sweat and presumably a case of frostbite into what he has accomplished. Viewed purely as a means of raising one's adrenaline, "The Grey" is a stirring experience, if not deceptively predictable. The wolves, including a black-haired alpha male almost otherworldly in his vicious, hulking authority, are as threatening as any unkillable psycho with a hatchet, and the way that the men fall victim to their wrath one by one is not unlike a slasher feature. For a time, it's immensely well-crafteda scene where the men are stalked in the pitch darkness by glowing yellow eyes edging ever closer to them is truly frightening, while a daring attempt to get across a cliff is nothing if not dizzyingly intensebut original? Not really.
If the viewer must wait as the actors fall prey to the animal kingdom and their natural surroundings based a lot of the time on their billing and prominencein other words, don't expect star Liam Neeson (2011's "Unknown
") to be the first to gothe picture eventually takes a transformative turn. With the chance for rescue or escape becoming slimmer with each heavy, exhausted footstep, what began as a film about survival becomes one about the acceptance of death and the hope for something greater waiting on the other side. For John Ottway, played by Neeson with focused vigor and an ultimate resigned acknowledgment of what cannot be changed, a higher power is something he wishes he could believe in. His beloved wife, seen in flashbacks, in no longer with him (where she is must be individually discovered), and the very thought that he and the other men lived through a plane crash for no reason since they will all be dead soon, too, is bitterly cruel and nonsensical. A God simply wouldn't allow such a thing, John believes, and when he screams to the heavens for help in a moment of raw desperation and unadulterated terror, the stillness he is met with is as unsettling as any growling wolf ever could be. In that moment, he knows he's on his own with only the memories of the people who meant the most to him keeping him company.
The characters in "The Grey" are decipherable more for physical features than for who they are, but a late scene where the photos in their wallets paint a very real picture for John of lives he did not know while they were still alive goes a long way in making up for the lack of development. Faced with a heightened situation like that, there probably wouldn't be much time to mull over one's life story to the virtual strangers around him, anyway. Arrestingly photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi (2011's "Warrior
"), British Columbia standing in believablyand teeth-chatteringlyfor desolate Alaska, the film evokes an eerie solitude between moments of stark horror, the remaining guys slowly coming to terms with not the loss of a loved one, but the inevitable loss of themselves. "The Grey" bravely and unconventionally concludes in the right spot, in a place where truth overrides what audiences conditioned to tidy endings will be anticipating. Whatever they think of it, so be it. Sometimes, things don't turn out the way a person wishes they would, or could. That, like everything else, is a part of life. We'll just have to wait and see what comes next.