Big Hollywood action thrillers can generally be judged by their posters — or at least by their trailers.
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson
That’s not the case with Liam Neeson’s latest, The Grey. Yes, it is another in a long line of survivor movies. Yes, it is about vicious animals attacking and killing off, one-by-one, a small group of humans. Yes, it’s about that group trying to fight back.
But The Grey has a lot more going for it than men against nature. Based on the story Ghost Walkers, by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, and co-written by Jeffers and the film’s director, Joe Carnahan (Narc, Pride and Glory), it compares and contrasts similarities and differences between two species: men and wolves.
It opens with an introduction to the terribly sad, obviously emotionally weary Ottway (Liam Neeson), a man who’s come to Alaska to escape a life that he wants no part of anymore. All we know is that he has an immense knowledge of wolves, his new job is to shoot any of them that try to attack a crew of oil riggers out in the field, and that the beautiful woman we see with him in a few tender flashbacks, in his words, “left me.”
Choosing not to take part in the chatty camaraderie of the riggers, Ottway is silently wallowing in his misery when the small plane they’re in goes down in a horrific crash in the midst of the snow-covered wilderness, leaving just him and a handful of men alive.
After a quick bit of Ottway showing a compassionate side, quietly talking one man through his final living minutes, he takes charge, telling the shell-shocked others that they must make a fire, find some food among the wreckage, then start walking. Ottway is the Alpha Male among the men.
But in short order, they see a large wolf calmly chowing down on a dead passenger and, after chasing it off, are visited that night by a pack of them. We don’t know how many, but we can see one big head, some very sharp teeth, and lots of glowing eyes.
That big head belongs to the Alpha Wolf. From that moment, the film follows the moves of both groups, and the decisions of both Alphas, each of whom must deal with problems in their ranks, each of whom must hold things together as leaders.
But there are other ways in which this isn’t your typical horror or monster film. The wolf attacks that follow aren’t about killing just to kill or finding food; they’re about territory. The humans are accidental trespassers, interlopers, who have landed in the wrong place. The wolves believe them to be invaders and will do what they need to do to keep order in their lives.
Dialogue is minimal. The wolves make unworldly sounds, while the men fall to bickering. Yet among the tense, creepy, scary scenes, complete with a few bloody gotchas (that never veer into gross-out gory territory), there’s a bit of campfire discussion about death and survival, along with pieces of back-stories and even a little humor.
The film’s second half brings in some more danger and acts of derring-do among the men. Numbers shrink on both sides. Some of the guys go peacefully, others are torn asunder. They even eat a wolf, without the benefit of having a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s great book How to Cook a Wolf.
There’s also a surprisingly moving final act that subtly reveals what drove Ottway to this life change. This is just not the kind of thing you generally find in a wild-animal-versus-man survival thriller.