There are a few middling thrills and mortal musings in The Grey, a survival yarn in which a group of plane-crash victims must contend with a relentless wolf pack. Thanks to Liam Neeson’s intelligent gravitas and a snowy Smithers, B.C., location (substituting for Alaska), the film sustains some suspense and brooding atmosphere for its first half, but eventually the clichés of character and dialogue drag it struggling to ground.
Director-writer Joe Carnahan ( Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team) and co-screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffries (working from his own short story) kick things off with a noirish, existential voiceover. Neeson is the grimly miserable John Ottway, a sharpshooter hired to keep wild animals away from oil pipeline workers. As he tells us, these are “men not fit to live among men,” living at the end of the world. Heading outside the bar, he sticks a rifle in his mouth but is stopped when he’s distracted by the howl of a wolf.
Soon he has another opportunity to contemplate the thin line between life and death after he boards a plane with some of the other workers, to head back home. As he drifts off into a dream about the beautiful woman who apparently left him (Anne Openshaw), he’s suddenly jolted awake as the plane loses control and crashes. Only seven of the passengers survive after Ottway talks a dying man through his last breaths. There is a little food, some mini-bottles of whisky, and lighters for fire. They may be able to hold on. Then the wolves make their presences felt, with a mass chorus of howls and sudden constellations of glowing eyeballs in the night.
After a brief challenge from ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo), Ottway establishes himself as the human alpha male: They have to get moving, he insists. Also hidden underneath the parkas and beards are Dermot Mulroney as a pining dad, and Dallas Roberts as a reflective type.
At its most ambitious, The Grey aspires to mimic a Jack London or Ernest Hemingway tale of men in extreme conditions, fighting their inner and outer demons. Despite the splendid scenery and the men’s proximity to giant fangs, too often The Grey feels oddly stagey when the men settle down into long stretches of dialogue. A pattern is soon established: The men argue and talk about their various peculiar family arrangements. Then they move on. Then the wolves attack and reduce their numbers once more. The remaining men move on again.
The wolves, in contrast, are more of a letdown the closer they get. The real trained animals we see in the distance are fascinating. The CGI and animatronic creatures used in closeups look as though they were part of Jacob’s extended family in the Twilight movies. Particularly underwhelming are the attack scenes, which employ the usual flurried Mixmaster editing of slasher films.
On the more admirable side, The Grey implies intriguing connections between the wolf leader and Ottway as a grizzled lone wolf making his last stand. As the men keep getting picked off, the narrative slides toward a refreshingly grim and ambiguous ending. There are, in fact, two endings to the movie: One is for the quitters who disappear as the final credits roll. Another is for those who, like Neeson’s character, show the fortitude to hang on to the bitter end.
- Directed by Joe Carnahan
- Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
- Starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars