The best I can say for The Grey is that it’s appropriately titled, for it’s as drab and predictable as visible breath on a wintry morn. Evidently, its director, Joe Carnahan, thought he’d try to raise this clichéd man-versus-nature tale a notch or two on the intelligence scale by infusing it with fireside-chat philosophizing about the existence of God and pseudo-heartwarming reminiscing on estrangement from loved ones and the comforts of civilization. In that way, it might have even greater appeal for the teenie-boppers at heart who want to convince themselves that the film is making much of a point beyond exciting in the viewer the chill-and-thrill sensation of not knowing when blood-dripping wolf jaws will lunge out from the omnipresent gloom of the Alaskan hibernal wilderness.
I won’t deny that it caused me to start in my seat a few times. But even the surprise element could have been so much more convincing if the wolves had been engineered with even a modicum of realism. In nature, these animals might be protective of their territory, but they aren’t blood-hungry killers in the employ of the Evil One (these hellish-looking beasts made me think not of grey wolves but of the goblin-controlled wargs from The Hobbit). From the werewolf-ish bristling of their fur tufts to the overly luminescent appearance of their bluish eyes in the blackness, it all looked so darn fakey. There’s only so much that CGI animation can do before it drains effect of credibility.
Yet any problems with the wolves pale by comparison with those of their bipedal counterparts. If I were a wolf, I’d be so annoyed by the airheaded dialogue of these pathetic excuses for humans that invaded my forest that I, too, would long for a pound of their flesh.
The only halfway-interesting bit of the film comes right at the beginning with the opening voiceover of the central protagonist, John Ottway (Liam Neeson), a loner who whiles away his bleak existence working for an Alaskan oil-drilling company as, ironically, a wolf killer. His hatred for the riff-raff he works with is exceeded only by self-loathing, a feeling that has been precipitated by separation from his wife. His emotional state has become so unstable that he sticks the tube of his rifle in his mouth and is about to pull the trigger. Little did he know that fate, in the form of an airplane crash, would subsequently try to finish what he set in motion.
You’d think that a disaster scene charged with such red-hot energy—in which the viewer literally sees the plane’s fuselage melting from within by molten heat—would end up feeling more climactic. Instead, it represents the beginning of a nosedive into a vacuous pit of nihilism.
Liam Neeson has such regal screen deportment that he almost makes his role as the alpha human credible. (One might ask, though, why he should suddenly care so much about saving the life he deemed not worth living only hours earlier, but I guess we can chalk that up to instinct taking over in the heat of the moment.) Not so John Diaz (Frank Grillo), whose penchant for swearing up a bloody streak and sophomorically taunting Ottway got pretty tiresome after a while. I’d expect dissension in the ranks to occur under such conditions, but I’d expect the behavior to be a bit less whiney and puerile. Ottway is the only man among them; the rest are regressive twerps.
As the men venture deeper into the forest and the attacks of their lupine pursuers become more frequent, the party gradually dwindles as the men are picked off one by one (an obvious horror cliché). But it would be too sensible for them to blame nature for their misfortunes, so they pick on God instead. Their shared atheism, in fact, gradually calms the turmoil within the group. The film’s godless message culminates in Ottway’s bellowing to the heavens for a heavenly sign when he is unable to save the last of his remaining comrades, Pete Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), from drowning.
As is so often the case with movies that rail against God, however, The Grey contradicts its supposed intention by focusing on the metaphysical (the metaphysical ultimately concerns God), particularly the allegory of memory. After the crash, Ottway collects all the wallets of the victims to honor them. The pictures of loved ones the wallets contain constitute windows into the private lives of their owners, reminders of the men they were. In his darkest moments, Ottway has gleaming visions of his wife, who thrice tells him “Don’t be afraid!” (Frankly, I can’t think of any less imaginative words they could have put in her mouth.) Ottway’s companion Jerome Talget (Dermot Mulroney), similarly has a vision of his young daughter after falling hundreds of feet to his death. (Not surprisingly, Ottway also takes Talget’s wallet.)
What would scenes like these mean if there’s no God, no afterlife? Why worry about the repose of the dead? Ghosts and dreamlike images are a sign of a world beyond. It simply doesn’t jibe with the idiotic pseudo-philosophical rambling of men who have given up hope in a higher power.
Such illogical hokum can, of course, masquerade as nuance to make a film seem smarter than it is. My hope is that it hasn’t been prevented from looking shallow and stupid upon closer examination. It’s unlikely that more than a few viewers would want to analyze the issues anyway. They’ll be too busy gripping their seats or fighting off goose bumps. Those who crave survival films would do well to revisit Werner Herzog’s 1972 classic Aguirre: Wrath of God—a multifaceted glimpse into the insane ambition of a conquistador who is overtaken by delusions as he and his party travel into the Peruvian rain forest in search of the mythical city of El Dorado. In that classic film, nature itself becomes the enemy—steep mountain crags, raging rivers, dense forests concealing Indian attacks—and with rapt attention we await the crumbling of the central character’s mind as he succumbs not only to natural forces but to his lust for gold, notoriety, and power. In The Grey, the clichéd man-versus-beast motif is all too familiar. In the end, all it really says is that seven dudes met their demise beneath the paws of more than seven wolves and God didn’t prevent it. The film may look stylish but it never ventures into the unknown.
Joe’s Grade: C