At a certain point, wherever you are, if you head north for long enough you will hit pure wilderness. Despite how it feels when you are in the midst of a city or within the long expanse of suburbia, there are still parts of the world which are completely free of human touch or contact. In the distant waters around the icy poles, behemoth whales twist slowly and lazily through the dark currents. Up in the cold vastness on the land, trees and forests can stretch for miles and miles, interrupted only by lonely mountain peaks and tundras blasted by sub-zero winds.
It is the latter setting within which The Grey takes place. Through no fault of their own, an airplane full of passengers experiences malfunction and crashes brutally into the middle of nowhere. Most of them die, sucked out into the air as the weather barrages the plane and rips away the fusilage. The main character, Ottway (played by Liam Neeson), regains consciousness in a snowy nightmare, surrounded by nothing but wreckage and the hostile embodiment of the north. This is not a place for humans. This is not a place where one can live, not without a truly gifted talent for survival and a good amount of gear. Here Ottway and those few remaining must make do or die, against both the harshness of the elements and the viciousness of wildlife that has never seen humans before and thus knows no fear of them.
Surrounded by the Grey
As is abundantly clear by what I have written so far, the setting that The Grey takes place in serves almost as a character unto itself. The first minute of the film shows mountains and forests at the twilight hour, forbidding, wondrous, and unfathomable. There are dozens of moments like this where we marvel at nature's beauty while simultaneously fearing its power. Blizzards roll smoothly across the camera and craggy rivers meander under the sight of windswept peaks. The Grey allows us to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the north as well as giving us abundant reason to dread how it would feel to actually be present within it.
Perhaps more than anything, this movie provides the ultimate fight of man versus nature. The primary antagonist in this manifests in the form of the wolves. It is remarkable to note that, prior to watching this movie, I didn't have any real fear of wolves. I long regarded them as beautiful creatures that mainly scavenged for their food, occasionally teaming up to take down elk. We've heard of wolfpacks and how the alpha wolf interacts with the rest of the group. It's an interesting subject, but one that rarely appears in stories anywhere.
However, this movie will really put a fear of canis lupus into you. While their brutality is, no doubt, exaggerated in the name of an effective story, it is still crystal clear that wolves are incredibly smart and dangerous animals. In The Grey, they slip about like shadows. They are without fear; they appear where you least expect them and with no warning. Even if you are armed, they take you by surprise and kill you in seconds. And, once you are on your own or even with one or two others, the pack can amass and simply charge you from all sides. Their power in the movie is as terrible as it is mythic. I haven't seen a movie “monster” as disturbingly competent and relentless as this since watching Jaws.
But even with an atmosphere both majestic and deadly, The Grey would just be another survival movie if not for its cast and emphasis on characterization. As the movie progresses, you really become attached to those few men who have survived. And, in the end, not many of them are people who you would probably like in real life. They are ex-convicts, alcoholics, and misanthropes. It is only in this scenario, where they have nothing to rely upon but each other and their own resolve to live, that you really empathize with them and want them to make it out. Even the most annoying and antagonistic of them go through change so that, when faced with death, even they can tug on your heartstrings. Diaz is the ultimate example of this; though initially he is an enormous asshole, he begins to take the situation seriously enough that he earns your respect and makes you root for him.
But, as one might expect, the crowning achievement in acting goes to Liam Neeson and his performance as Ottway. Described by one of the other survivors as “the great white hunter”, Ottway is the one man among them most skilled at wilderness survival. Previously hired to hunt and shoot wolves that would harass oil derrick workers, Ottway is that one guy you want by your side for mountain hikes or bar fights. But even Ottway, competent as he is, is as capable of slipping up and making mistakes like you or I.
Through a mixture of flashbacks, storytelling, and brief dream sequences, we see that Ottway harbors an intense dissatisfaction with life, unable to be with the woman he loves. The movie effectively portrays to the viewer just how much of a psychological wound that is for the man and its effect on his struggle to live, and we see clearly that there is nothing more important to him in the world than his wife. His inability to be with her makes his life feel like idle wandering through a misty void. But regardless, we find that he still manages to find the strength to go on and, as the movie progresses, we see precisely why he manages to hold fast and keep heart despite the efforts of nature to do him in.
The Grey is probably one of the best, if not the best, movies I've seen in the past year. It takes a simple premise (men crash land in an icy wilderness and try to survive) and lends it an incredibly intense atmosphere as well as powerful emotional resonance through the characters that populate it. It has the most sinister depiction of wolves I've ever seen, and the clever mix of animatronics, real wolves, and CGI manages to maintain the illusion quite effectively. The movie finishes just as one feels it would and should.
One should note that it is a very dark and mature movie, however, and that it might scare you shitless with regard to hiking or mountain climbing for some time. You also might find yourself twitching nervously the next time you hear a wolf howl. But, if you can handle these minor inconveniences, The Grey is definitely worth checking out (in movie theaters, for full effect) as one of the more intense survival/horror/thrillers I've ever seen.