Set in Alaska in the snow and pine forests where wolf packs live. Liam Neeson plays a rifleman who is hired by a petroleum company to hunt wolves that attack people. He is a loner who longs for his wife and nearly kills himself. He is on a plane with rough frontier people. The plane crashes in icy wilderness and as Neeson uses his skills to become the leader facing down macho competition from the surviving group. They all face death,,,
The film starts out with the stereotypically rugged loner with an emotionally difficult past, and he’s on a plane with familiarly rugged attitudes and faces you find in many westerns. The plane crashes and I wondered if we were in for Lost with ice and snow. Instead a very watchable film survived the early crash. We have also seen lots of survival films in which the best and strongest guy prevails over the inevitable challenge to his natural authority. When his leadership is contested we expect his rivals to be motivated by weakness and cynical self disappointment and The Grey has quite a bit of that Then we get a creepy family man telling the group about his relationship with his family, this is the survival equivalent of the war film in which a soldier shows an enemy soldier his family photograph in order to establish his credentials as a human being under the uniform. The Grey does all this but it works, after all what would people in extreme situations talk to one another about? The simplified confrontations are used for the benefit of the film because of the limitations of time. We wouldn’t pay to watch a film where someone just mumbles inanely in the snow for a couple of hours, would we? Come to think of it, that’s what we get in a lot of mainstream films anyway.
The Grey does a creditable job of steering us through and beyond the usual confrontational reliabilities: winning over the sneering cynic, the sensitive guy dying, the bloody minded maverick who finally realizes he can’t make it without the others, the ritualized recognition of our animality (they eat a wolf’s carcass and one of the characters hacks off the wolf’s head in a sort of blood rite). Throughout all this, Liam Neeson emerges as a monument of stern self reliance, his features like a bony mask of patience and suffering. A sort of nature mysticism welds their solidarity in the face of icy wilderness and predatory wolves who stalk them. When people face unwanted ordeals of pain and endurance (like surviving in wildernesses and enduring childbirth) it shows the pathetically childish nonsense of machismo in stark relief, and people will suffer what they can the more reluctantly, the more heroically. The Grey is at its best when it shows all this. They have to get off a mountain by crossing over to the forest below and one of them falls and crashes into the trees hallucinating his daughter as he dies. Their acceptance of probable death is what endows these otherwise unremarkable people with tragic heroism. There is dark humour and then acceptance of death. This reminded me of Jack London stories also set in the Alaskan forests. Watching this film is a bit like studying a manuel for survival after a plane crash. We learn that wolves have to be faced down in a confrontation, that the alpha wolf will send in a low status wolf to test the opposition. Mercifully in The Grey we don’t hear about cannibalism or get any cannibal jokes, the main thing is to build a fire and eat the wolves.
A spectacular adventure.