The Grey (2011)

The Grey first published by Film4

Summary: Joe Carnahan’s fifth feature is a snowy Nietzschean bleakfest of man facing off against beast, God and mortality.   

Review: “A job at the end of the world.” 

That’s how, in the opening sequence of The Grey, Ottway (Liam Neeson) describes his work as a sharpshooter at a remote Alaskan oil-rig, taking out any wolves that stray too close to the outdoor crews. It is a wild frontier of a place, populated with “men unfit for mankind” – but this grim exile, left by his beloved wife and now “damned” to suicidal despair, will soon find himself in an even more barren and desolate locale, aptly described by one character as “Fuck City, population five and rapidly dwindling.” For when the plane that is the only link between the oil refinery and civilisation comes crashing down in a storm, Ottway and a handful of other survivors are left to fend for themselves in an arctic no-man’s land where the weather – and wolves – are circling for the kill. 

A small (and diminishing) group of individuals in an extreme environment, pushed to their limits by a deadly threat which picks them off one by one – it is a formula familiar from Alien (indeed, Ridley Scott is a producer on The Grey), The Thing, and Alive (expressly referenced here as “that movie where they start taking chunks of ass out of that dead guy”), amongst many others. Yet what distinguishes Joe Carnahan’s Nietzschean bleakfest from these is a willingness to stare into death’s beady eyes without flinching, and to carry through the stark convictions of its themes to their bitterly chilling end. Forget the postmodern flash of Carnahan’s previous Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team – this latest film, co-adapted by the director and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from Jeffers’ short story Ghost Walker, is a sparse, stripped-down affair where men, encumbered only by flimsy backpacks and starkly minimal backstories (told in wallet photos and spectral flashbacks), must face down their own mortality. 

Shot on location in northwestern British Columbia amidst 20-below-zero temperatures and 60-mph winds, the film’s production put its cast through physical ordeals that translate into on-screen experiences too grimly downbeat to be classed as adventure, but which nonetheless remain viscerally thrilling from start to finish. The  wolves themselves are evoked primarily through excellent, all-encompassing sound design, but when they do appear on screen, rendered through a blend of live animal work, animatronic puppetry and CGI, they combine terrifying realism with a monstrous mythic quality that never seems ill-suited to the film’s austere canvas. These creatures, after all, are the fanged embodiment of death itself, as well as a bestial reflection of the survivalist urges in their human counterparts. 

“You’re not the animals! We’re the animals!”, shouts the sociopathic Diaz (Frank Grillo) into the howling darkness as, in desperation to prove himself more alpha than omega in his own ragtag pack, he commits outrages against a canine carcass – while Ottway, in another moment of crisis (the whole film is a series of such moments) rails openly against that “prick motherfucker” God, calling upon Him to do something helpful or revelatory, before concluding, “Fuck it – I’ll do it myself.” For in the existential hell that The Grey conjures, characters divested of their everyday civilised trappings, and armed only with sticks, bottles and cherished memories, must define themselves by their relationship not only to their fellow men, but also to savage, unforgiving nature and indifferent, perhaps entirely absent, divinity. The result is a succession of apocalyptic life-or-death encounters truly unfolding at the end of these men’s world.  

Verdict: In this sombre survivalist nightmare, men try desperately to keep the wolf from the door while director Joe Carnahan offers up ice, existentialism and the apocalypse.

© Anton Bitel