Back in the manly days of the last century, there were many stories and poems about taking on the wilderness. Jack London and Robert Service weaved tales of the frozen wastelands where the promise of gold and adventure held sway of men’s souls. As a child, I loved reading White Fang, The Call of the Wild and The Spell of the Yukon. For those who yearn of such alpha male legends, we now have The Grey.
The story is of a plane crash. Liam Neeson plays Ottway. He’s hired by the oil companies to make sure the workers are not attacked by prey. Basically his job is to kill wolves before they kill humans. Though he destroys the beasts, he still carries a respect for them. The other aspect of Ottway is that he has a broken heart. Shown only in a series of fleeting flashbacks, there was a woman who filled his life with joy. Now there is only morose pain.
Ottway takes a flight from the job site down to Anchorage. On board are members of the workforce, rough men with coarse exteriors. As we get in the voice-over, they are criminals and men of low standing who take the roughneck job because it is the only work they can get. Not all are hardened felons. Some are family men who just want to get back to their loved ones.
Soon the plane crashes in the middle of the frozen wasteland, and eventually we have seven survivors. As the snow falls, the wolves come closer. Ottway knows that the plane must have crashed somewhere near their den and that the animals see the humans as a threat.
While some of the group wants to stay put and wait for rescue, Ottway knows that they will not survive unless they get out of the hunting ground of the pack. The film becomes a race to civilization as they battle away from the pack that picks off the survivors one by one. Their journey becomes a hardened trek across some beautiful land as these men try to survive both the elements and their inner demons.
One of the elements that I liked best about The Grey was that anyone can and does die. In a film like this one, it becomes obvious who will survive and who will be wolf chowder. But, it keeps one guessing on who will survive the longest. Some characters that seem destined to make it until the end are taken away while others who seem like afterthoughts get to hang on. It almost becomes a game of guessing who will get it next.
Co-writer/director Joe Carnahan weaves a mannish tale that would make Jack London proud. These guys have to take on the elements while struggling for dominance in their own makeshift pack. Just as the wolves do, the men jockey for who will be the Alpha Male. Carnahan captures the claustrophobic nature of being in the vast expanse of wilderness while the beasts encircle. His camera captures the majesty of this untouched land, the beauty that poets and writers have waxed upon for untold years. The look of the film is serene.
Liam Neeson gives a one-note performance in The Grey. His “Ottway” is a broken man full of internal demons that mirror the external demons that chase him. As we discover the back story of his character, the motivations become clear. He is a man with nothing to lose, a character who has basically given up and still, at the end of the day, wants to fight for survival. It is a simple comment on the duality of man.
As the movie played on the screen, I kept thinking about my middle school literature class. We learned about how stories were about ‘man vs. man’, ‘man vs. nature’ and ‘man vs. himself’. The teacher said that the best stories had all three elements. The Grey feels like those adventure stories one reads as a young teen, a beginning chapter book.
THE GREY opens January 27, 2011