Joe Carnahan's The Grey, at times, feels like an Ernest Hemingway short story bolted onto a Jack London novel. Imagine the hypermasculine protagonists of a particularly hard-edged Hemingway story thrust into the glacial brutality of the Alaskan wilderness, with the haunting beauty of its blizzarding scenery only pierced by the howls of the wolves that see them as a threat to their very existence. It's a man versus nature action epic that intriguingly dials down the action to more muted levels, instead focusing on the men themselves, and the plight of their survival. Its few moments spent delving into idiotic cliche not withstanding, The Grey is as contemplative and poetic a film about men being stalked by wolves as you can possibly imagine.
So much of that contemplation and poetry is delivered by Liam Neeson who plays Ottway, a hired sharpshooter at a remote oil rigging station in the northern tip of Alaska. The film opens with Neeson grumbling noir-ish narration over views of him sadly moping around the otherwise rowdy (and downright lawless) on-site bar, coldly picking off would-be attacking creatures as oil workers go about fixing pipes, and even taking a brief moment to put his own gun in his mouth. He, like so many other tortured men living a nomadic life, is haunted by the memory of a woman. For a long time, we don't know why she's gone, but it's enough to simply know that she is gone, and that Ottway is broken because of this.
The lot of oil workers he's taken up with include a variety of vagabonds, fugitives, ex-convicts, and other unsavory types who just want a paycheck and a place to hide out from polite society. Ottway seems plenty happy to simply avoid them, but when a team flight back to Anchorage goes terribly wrong, Ottway finds himself stranded in a bleak, frozen wilderness with only a handful of survivors, including such noteworthy character actors as Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale, Frank Grillo, Nonso Anozie, and Dermot Mulroney (who, oddly, looks a little bit like a Fred Armisen character here.) As if that weren't bad enough, they've crash landed right into the middle of a territory that a nasty pack of wolves have taken up as their den. Ottway knows wolves, because he's paid to kill them. He knows that if they're in the wolves' territory, they'll perceive the human pack as a threat, and stalk them until they're all dead.
Before I go any further, a brief acknowledgment about this film's portrayal of wolves. In truth, wolf attacks are a fairly abnormal thing. They're more afraid of humans than willing to stalk them, in most cases. The script, by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also wrote the short story on which the film is based), dances around this notion by planting the survivors directly within the radius of the wolves' den, which makes them an immediate, deadly threat to the creatures and their habitat. The reality of how these wolves would react and attack probably isn't exactly what this film portrays. At the same time, this is not a movie where man's plight against nature somehow glorifies the hunting and killing of wolves. In fact, I'd say that in the grand scheme of things, the men bore the brunt of this encounter's suffering.
Carnahan, who has displayed perhaps a greater interest in style over substance in films like Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, assiduously avoids action-izing The Grey in practically any way. His few stylistic touches come in brief dream sequences involving Ottway and his lost love--some that feel almost a little too close to home, given Neeson's own personal tragedies--as well as a particularly horrific plane crash sequence that immerses you in the chaos perhaps better than any film in recallable memory.
Otherwise, he lets the brutality of the elements do the heavy lifting. Save for a few swelling cellos here and there, the soundtrack mostly consists of the howling winds, heavy footsteps, and snarling growls of the hunters. The northern scenery, captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi with a perpetual wisping grey haze over everything, is at once gorgeous and terrifying. It's amazing to look at, and remarkably isolating in feeling.
More important than any of that, though, is how Carnahan treats his characters. In the early goings, The Grey looks like it's going to morph into a fairly standard slasher picture, with an unwilling leader bringing his unwilling group along as they begin to embody the archetypes of mediocre horror fare--the loud-mouthed wimp, the angry ex-con who repeatedly challenges Ottway's authority, the injured man not long for this world, the faithful religious type whose faith guides him, and so on and so forth.
Interestingly, The Grey only makes a brief divergence in that direction, mostly in early, dialogue-heavy sequences filled with hamfisted tough talk that serves little purpose. Once that stuff is out of the way though, the movie begins to enter its intended territory. A few of the less developed characters are offed quickly, leaving us with five men that Carnahan proceeds to inject with more than just the usual list of annoying character traits. These men talk about their lives, their loved ones, and the things that motivate them to live. Outside of some of the usual misogynistic bluster you'd expect from a bunch of guys cooped up together for too long, there's some actual, genuine-feeling heart in the things these men confide in each other. At one point, Ottway talks about his father as being a fairly stereotypical Irish man, who brawled and boozed and never shed a tear, but inexplicably, loved poetry. In this moment, you see that all these men are exactly the same. Men with rough-hewn edges that are deeper, and more complex than what the surface level shows.
In that regard, Carnahan is remarkably successful at making you care for these guys, and ratcheting up the tension as they're each picked off. The Grey is one of the first movies I've seen in ages to actually make me a little bit afraid of something leaping out from off-screen at practically any given moment. This is one of those rare cases where jump scares don't feel cheap. They're earned early on by both how invested you become in the men on screen, and how completely, horrifyingly unexpected the attacks come over the course of the film. It's incredibly tense stuff.
It also helps that Neeson is just terrific here. His inexplicable mission to go from one of the world's most beloved low-key actors into one of the world's most unlikely action heroes certainly gets a major boost from this movie, where he tussles with CG wolves and his own men with reckless abandon. This is one of those movies where I honestly can't even envision anyone else playing Ottway. He embodies the character so completely, it's almost unimaginable to envision another face gasping for freezing air as he sizes up the glowing eyes of the predators that surround him. In one particularly perfect moment, the previously-professed atheist Ottway screams at the sky, demanding God do something to show him he's watching, pledging to believe in him forever should he just give him one sign. Receiving no answer, Neeson simply shrugs, looks around, and says "Fuck it, I'll do it myself." That right there is pretty much the embodiment of Neeson's entire performance.
Where The Grey may ultimately divide audiences is with its conclusion. Without aiming to spoil anything, I'll simply say that it's the absolute culmination of what's come before it, a moment less about the action than the men who found themselves trapped within it. So much of The Grey acts like a sparsely-written poem about manhood, loss, life, and death. It's a thoughtful character drama with a survivalist epic draped over top, so as to perhaps not spook those just looking for another dumb action romp.
I assure you, if all you're interested in is watching Liam Neeson go stab-happy on a bunch of wolves for two hours, this isn't that movie (though it probably wouldn't hurt if you stuck around through the end credits for the last, cathartic shot.) Instead, it's a nasty, pitiless tale of nature breaking down even the most hardened men, reducing them to fearful, shattered husks of their former selves as they cling only to the hope of maybe, just maybe, surviving an impossible ordeal. Nothing in The Grey goes down easily, and it's absolutely a better film for that fact.