By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Death, the great unknown, haunts at every instance in director Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey,” a tale of survival as exhausting as it is unsettling. This is brutal, in-your-face stuff, a big, icy metaphor set in Alaska that won’t relent in its harsh fatalism. Yet, just because it has some highfalutin philosophy doesn’t earn it the right to pawn off a copout ending.
Starring Liam Neeson in a sharp turn as Ottway, the oil company-employed hunter who takes charge when a group of plane crash survivors are left stranded in the wolf-invested freeze, the saga certainly has its moments. Adapted by Ian McKenzie Jeffers and director Carnahan from Mr. Jeffers’s short story, “Ghost Walker,” it’s actually quite literate.
Channeling shades of bargain basement Coleridge and Jack London, tightly knit into a series of fairly well directed causes of high-tension anxiety, it follows the usual pattern of its genre. It’s up to us to guess who, if any, will survive the seemingly impossible odds. They have no weapons, little food, and it sure looks like the wolves have their number.
And so, good-natured, caring soul that you are, not knowing that a terribly disappointing, poor excuse of a finale awaits, you invest in their plight. While only Neeson’s character, the alpha male anguished by life’s misgivings and regrets, earns our full interest, an albeit familiar but engaging chemistry is established among the group. Some are just goners.
Distinguished from the ragtag motleys, fringe sorts who perceive life in the outreaches as their answer to the French Foreign Legion, Dallas Roberts’s Hendrick seems a regular enough guy…you know, family man. The same goes for Talget, played by Dermot Mulroney. But Ben Bray’s Hernandez proves there’s always at least one troublemaker.
A couple of others are cause for consternation, but are a mere rehearsal for the big, lupine confrontation. They’re out there. Just peering from the dark, only their eyes visible, we sense their size, ferocity and pitiless resolve. An expert in their ways, Ottway outlines what measures must be taken if they are to outwit their inbred survival instinct.
The chase is on pell-mell, a decidedly non-stop affair through the frozen wilds that rarely decelerates long enough to let you gather your thoughts. The slightest comedy relief, usually in the form of gallows humor, is treasured. We are out of breath, the wolves at our heels. Then comes our first butchering. Reality looms. Oh, Mommy, help!
Threading through the horrors of sheer survival, the subject of a greater power enters the dialogue. Half believe, half don’t, and in their disparity lies a chance to bond and learn tolerance, no matter how short-lived. In Gunga Din’s India, we’d have our ears perked for bagpipes. For now, no bagpipes, and no helicopters…only the angry snarl of wolves.
If it is the director’s aim to impress what a slim line exists between life and death, he is unbearably successful. But in accord with Woody Allen, who said “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” I found “The Grey” more wearing than profound. Two hours in the shadow of Damocles’s sword is hardly entertaining.
Call me crazy. I’m just a film critic. But if Mr. Carnahan wanted to tell us something really reflective about survival, the cruel balance of nature and where we Homo sapiens fit into Darwin’s deductions, he might have also told the wolves’ side of the story, taken us into their lair, given us a look at their sociology. Whoa…I’m not saying take their side.
But as it stands, through some OK special effects that make the wolves seem as big as the toothy dude who dined on Red Riding Hood’s dear old granny, this is a monster movie, and not the fully dimensional treatise on survival of the fittest it might have been. Still, despite its disconsolate madness, like a nightmare it leaves a lasting impression.
It pushes buttons. And because its often gratuitous nature is nonetheless interspersed with some rather soulful and even intellectual insights about human strength and frailty, it can sweep you up in its doom and gloom. Further ameliorating the film’s unremitting, take-no-prisoners attitude, a mystery concerning Ottway’s own demons has its curiosity.
Pun shamefully intended, whether or not to see this biting thriller is truly a matter of taste. So unless you really need a feature length reminder not to survive a plane crash where carnivorous species reside, or are simply willing to accept it for the flesh-ripping fright fest it is, surely you can find something less grisly to gnaw on than “The Grey.”
“The Grey,” rated R, is an Open Road Films release directed by Joe Carnahan and stars Liam Neeson, Ben Bray and Dallas Roberts. Running time: 117 minutes
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