It’s only fair to warn you that The Grey is not — despite the idea you might get from its marketing — an action movie. There is some action, yes, but there’s a lot more silence and thought. What it is is a dark movie; in order to cheer up afterwards, I suggest renting The Road.
Returning from an oil drilling rig far in the arctic, an airplane goes down far out in the Alaskan wilderness. After making the requisite jokes about Alive, the few survivors gather what they can carry and set off to find whatever salvation they can, since they’re pretty certain nobody’s going to come in time to save them. It’s bad enough that they’re so far north in the winter, but it seems they’ve also come down near enough to a den of wolves to attract plenty of unwanted attention.
For the most part, the film stars Liam Neeson and a bunch of guys who are not Liam Neeson. At first they’re more or less interchangeable, but as time goes on we learn more about each one — or at least about each one who survives that long.
Ottway (Neeson) is a sniper hired to kill wolves that threaten the rig and the workers, so at least he knows a thing or two about them. Diaz (Frank Grillo) is full of piss and vinegar, carrying on about how everybody’s wasting their time. Talget (Dermot Mulroney) seems to be the intellectual one — the faithful one — or maybe that’s just his glasses. Flannery (Joe Anderson) is a panicky motormouth. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) is the strong, silent type. Burke (Nonso Anozie) carries enough extra heft we wonder how much exertion he’s cut out for.
A remote oil rig like theirs is no place for a family; people who work there tend not to have much back home, or else not much other choice in the matter. Happy people do not end up at these ends of the Earth in the first place. Ottway is haunted by memories of his wife, and he keeps turning up a letter he wrote to her, although it seems she was gone before he even left for this job. In a way, the ordeal gives him something to live for just by giving him something to struggle against.
It almost seems unthinkable that Joe Carnahan — the director of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team — could bring forward such a deeply contemplative film; it helps that he had a strong source in the short story Ghost Walker, by his co-writer, Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, who had previously adapted Death Sentence.
It’s a brutally honest film, where the tough, strong men show surprising emotional vulnerabilities before being picked off, one by one. Diaz, in particular, seems crafted specifically to shut down the defenses of those who would casually dismiss or distance themselves from the danger. Few of us may be trapped, isolated in the wilderness, but we are all of us out in the cold with our own wolves nipping at our own heels. The Grey asks how we deal with it, and it has the decency not to give us any easy answers.
Worth It: yes, but be fairly warned about its graphic intensity.
Bechdel Test: fail.