Released: 27 January 2012
Director: Joe Carnahan
Distributor: Open Road Films
Budget: $25 million
Stars: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, and Nonso Anozie
Following a devastating plane crash, suicidal marksman John Otway (Neeson) finds himself stranded in the desolate Alaskan wilderness alongside a handful of survivors. Battling mortal injuries and merciless weather, the survivors find themselves hunted and hounded by a pack of wild, ravenous wolves and in a race against time (and nature) to find safety.
The Grey was based on the short story Ghost Walker by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and reunited director Joe Carnahan with his A-Team (ibid, 2010) star Liam Neeson. Neeson, who was still enjoying a career resurgence after the success of Taken (Morel, 2008), replaced his A-Team co-star Bradley Cooper in the main role. The gruelling shoot, which drew controversy after it was revealed that the cast got to eat actual wolf meat during filming and for furthering the negative depiction of wolves in popular media, gave Neeson the opportunity to channel his grief over the death of his wife into his performance. Still, the film’s worldwide box office gross of just over $80 million made it a modest success and it earned mostly positive reviews despite its unrelating nature. Personally, I found it to be a poignant and surprisingly tragic story of survival and the harsh reality of nature and I’ll take any excuse to revisit it and today seems like the perfect opportunity given that it’s Liam Neeson’s birthday.
Our main character, John Ottway is a haunted man; stuck in a job at the farthest corner of the world, he feels he belongs isolated from the larger world and surrounded by assholes and ex-cons. A sombre, stoic man whose narration sporadically accompanies the film’s bleak and sparse score, he actively avoids others wherever possible and torments himself with memories of his beloved dead wife, Ana (Anne Openshaw), whom he longs to have back in his life. Although he plays a pivotal role in protecting the workers of the oil refinery from ravenous wolves with his expert marksmanship, so great is his anguish that he is fully prepared to kill himself at the start of the film. Despite being literally at the end of his rope and admitting to being scared shitless, Ottway’s survival instinct kicks into full effect after surviving the plane crash; although he has no wish to be a leader, and despite believing that he no longer has anything useful to offer the world, Ottway doesn’t hesitate to help and rally the injured survivors in pooling their few resources and hiking their way through the wilderness.
The plane crash is depicted as a sudden and violent event that perfectly encapsulates why I hate flying; while I find it difficult to believe that anyone, much less a handful of people, would be capable of surviving such an impact, the film does a great job of showing Ottway’s adaptability in his foresight to prepare himself for the crash and we immediately see the fallout from the devastating accident. Bodies and wreckage are strewn everywhere and Ottway immediately shows his pragmatic, realistic approach to the situation when he levels with the trapped Duke Chavis (Adrian Hein) that his injuries are fatal. The ragtag survivors are forced to rally together despite suffering from shock and the extreme cold (and, most probably, a few concussions); it’s not long before injuries and wolves begin to pick off the weaker members, however, or before the affable Jackson Burke (Anozie) succumbs to the hypoxia he has been hiding from his comrades.
While the other survivors – Dwayne Hernandez (Ben Bray), Todd Flannery (Joe Anderson), Pete Hendrick (Roberts), and Jerome Talget (Mulroney) – defer to Ottway’s knowledge of the area and its wildlife, John Diaz (Grillo) frequently challenges Ottway’s leadership and decisions. An abrasive and antagonistic pessimist, Diaz doesn’t appreciate Ottway’s authority and constantly mocks Ottway’s decisions (or lack thereof); he finds it laughable that Ottway goes out of his way to collect the wallets of the dead for their families, refuses to help the group in scavenging for supplies, and frequently boasts of his ability to survive without Ottway’s assistance. However, for all his fire and bluster, the simple truth is that he is as strung out and scared to death as the rest of them. Overwhelmed by the desperation of their situation, Diaz almost comes to blows with Ottway before he is attacked by a wolf; after focusing his aggression and panic on brutally slaughtering and beheading the creature, Diaz’s demeanour changes to one of humble co-operation and he ultimately proves himself to be a valuable ally and brave-hearted survivor.
It isn’t long before the group has their first encounter with one of the many wild and ravenous wolves that populate the area; one attacks Ottway after he interrupts it chowing down on a corpse and, as the group struggles to find their way and set aside their differences, a pack of wolves constantly stalks them from the shadows and the thick, impenetrable woods like an ominous supernatural force. Armed with a wealth of knowledge of the wolves’ behavioural and territorial nature, Ottway desperately tries to keep the group alive as the wolves test them with infrequent attacks and seemingly taunt them with howls and growls from the darkness. As the survivors have trespassed into the wolves’ territory (and are, it turns out, walking right towards and through their den), they are unusually aggressive and bold; intelligent enough not to swarm the group, even with their greater numbers, the wolves bide their time and pick off the weakest and the stragglers one at a time as the film, assuring that the tension and dread escalates to the film’s dramatic climax.
Set in the bleak, barren mountains of Alaska, the environment of The Grey is just as ominous and harsh and as much of an antagonist as the wolves; the survivors are relentlessly besieged by bitter winds, knee-deep snow, harsh blizzards, and below-freezing temperatures that cause them nothing but pain and further tumult within their already highly-strung group. Even in the film’s few daytime scenes, the feeling of helplessness and isolation is palpable and, at every turn, the environment worsens their situation: they have few opportunities for cover and safety, even fewer options in terms of food (the group relishes the chance to cook and eat a wolf in order to intimidate their stalkers), and are often gravely and fatally injured or obstructed by the threes, canyons, and ice-cold rivers that surround them
Survival is, of course, a key theme in the film and is emphasised through Ottway’s persistent reflection on a short poem written by his father that speaks of a man’s final push into “the fray” and the “last good fight [he’ll] ever know”. Although the plane crash was devastating, the group are able to salvage some fuel for fires and Ottway is able to cobble together some crude weaponry for them to defend themselves with, much to Diaz’s initial chagrin. Thanks to their few resources, the group are just barely able to limp along and find ways to overcome the obstacles they face but, every time they do (whether it’s a wolf or a part of the environment), it extracts a price: each hurdle sees at least one man either injured or horribly killed until the group is whittled down to just three survivors left fatigued and disheartened. A few scenes that stand out for their intensity are the moment where the guys are left with no choice but to scramble across a precarious rope from a cliff edge into the trees below in order to find a river that could lead them to safety (which leaves Talget critically injured and at the mercy of the wolves), Diaz’s decision to ultimately give up fighting and succumb to the ravages of nature (a poignant and utterly heart-breaking scene where he gives Ottway a heartfelt thank you for getting them so far), and the absolutely brutal and abrupt drowning of Hendrick after making the first aforementioned jump into the trees.
In a nutshell, The Grey is the ultimate depiction of man versus nature; out in the barren wilds, the group cannot depend on anyone or anything but themselves and this is beautifully emphasised in the bleak atheism that permeates the film. To stave off the terror and despair of their situation, the group share stories of their loved ones: Ottway encourages this as it gives the guys something to fight for when their backs are against the wall and he believes not in God but in the stark reality that he is faced with. The wolves are depicted as monstrous, unrelenting extensions of the environment, often appearing as little more than a blurry mess of fur and teeth or simply the pinpricks of their eyes glistening in the darkness. With all the other men dead, Ottway finds himself stranded in the middle of the den with nothing but a bag full of wallets; after sombrely buring the wallets, Ottway first challenges God to intervene and then rejects Him entirely in a powerfully relatable scene before preparing himself for a fight to the death with the Alpha wolf. I can fully understand people being disappointed that the film abruptly cuts to the credits and leaves us with a brief, ambiguous post-credits scene rather than depicting a full-on, bloody brawl between Ottway and the Alpha but I feel this sudden end is just as powerful and effective. By this point, Ottway has overcome so much hardship and pain, seen so many good and brave men die in their attempts to beat nature, and is faced with the startling realisation that he had been leading them in the wrong direction the entire time that he has absolutely nothing left to fight for but himself. Seeing Ottway strap broken bottles and a knife to his hands and prepare to fight to his last breath is a stark contrast to where we find Ottway at the start of the film, where he was all-but-ready to put a bullet in his head and makes for an impactful and memorable end to a powerful and intense film.
Like many, I’m sure, I was sold on The Grey on my fondness for Liam Neeson and the idea of seeing him having a fist fight with a wolf. What I got was one of the most uncompromisingly bleak and brutal tales of survival against the ravages of nature that I have ever seen. A dismal and startling mediation on the harsh and cruel nature of the wilderness, The Grey may not do much for the depiction of wolves but it never fails to have an impact on me for the way it portrays them as savage, almost demonic arms of nature itself. Bolstered by some understated performances, to say nothing of Neeson’s grim but dogged Ottway, The Grey remains an intense and deeply affecting experience for me; the lack of catharsis in a definitive ending only punctuates what is a harrowing tale of survival and the fortitude of man’s willingness to do anything to overcome the odds. Even if we ultimately fail, in those moments we find the best of ourselves, the ability to set aside grievances, pull together what few resources we have, and make a definitive, if ultimately futile, stand in the effort to stay alive.
Are you a fan of The Grey? What did you think to its portrayal of wolves as viscous, ravenous predators? Like me, do you enjoy the film’s bleak tone and the themes of survival and man against nature? How does the film affect you, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise? What did you think to Liam Neeson’s performance and Diaz’s character development? Do you think you would be able to survive under the same harsh conditions seen in the film? How are you celebrating Liam Neeson’s birthday and what is your favourite Liam Neeson film? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below and let me know what you think.