Joe Carnahan's thriller is not your typical popcorn fare. It's main character is somber and suicidal. Then it strands that man in the cold Alaskan wilderness where wolves try to hunt him down. Whether or not the film is completely accurate about wolf behavior doesn't matter because it made me believe it was real.
The suicidal man Ottway (Liam Neeson, SCHINDLER'S LIST) is a survivalist who works for the oil companies to hunt down wolves in order to protect the workers from attacks. He boards a plane out of the remote region of the oil fields to head back to Anchorage. When the plane goes down he is forced to think on his feet and continue his job of protecting the workers in a far more extreme arena.
Ottway is a realist and when one of the workers is bleeding out he looks him straight in the eyes and tells him he will die. He's not about false hope, but tells the man to think of the things he loves for those will be the things that carry him into the abyss. Ottway becomes the de facto leader of a group of tried and true genre characters. Talget (Dermot Mulroney, ABOUT SCHMIDT) plays the father who just wants to get back to his family. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts, WALK THE LINE) plays the voice of reason, who sees Ottway as their only hope of survival. Flannery (Joe Anderson, THE CRAZIES) is the jokester who likes to talk about bombs and the film ALIVE on plane flights. Burke (Nonso Anozie, CONAN) is the arbitrary albatross around the group's neck because the altitude is making him ill. But any good survival thriller needs a human antagonist to pit against the hero. Diaz (Frank Grillo, WARRIOR) is an ex-con who doesn't like taking orders and would rather charge headfirst into the wolves den and see how many he can take down before they get him.
Carnahan brings the same desaturated visual style that he brought to his breakout, NARC. The grainy and washed out imagery fits his tone and setting very well. He builds his plot strategically throughout a logical progression of events and heightening obstacles that don't just involve the wolves, but also the harsh environment. He sells that environment so well that you gain an added respect for the wolves and their ability to survive there. That respect makes them all the more frightening. The toll that the plot puts on these characters creates emotional obstacles towards the end that are far more compelling than any external threat they could encounter. And to the credit of Carnahan he allows the story to play out naturally, going into dark territory that actually makes us think.
Ever since TAKEN, Neeson seems to be the goto pick for hard-hitting thrillers. His no nonsense approach allows him to slide into these roles comfortably. And when the story deals with touching issues of life and death it is hard not to think of Neeson's personal tragedy with the death of his wife Natasha Richardson and how that played into his performance. While none of the other actors are given characters as rich they do provide support that make his character shine. Mulroney is just likable. Anderson adds the right dose of levity to this dark subject matter. Grillo's character's personality provides added tension because it is the biggest liability to the group's survival.
While films like THE EDGE and FROZEN come to mind when thinking of this one, THE GREY exceeds both of those films. As I said in the beginning, Carnahan has made something real. It doesn't sensationalize the dangers of extreme cold or the threat of hungry wolves like FROZEN. THE EDGE played up the human conflict, whereas this film finds the balance between survival and human drama. In doing these things I found the film grabbed hold of an aggressive carpe diem view of life despite it's dark journey. That was the most surprising element of the film – it's a thriller with a sense of soul.