A group of oil rig workers are leaving the Alaskan refinery they’ve called home for the last five weeks and heading back to Anchorage to family and friends for a much-deserved break when the unthinkable happens. A severe storm sends their plane crashing into the frozen wilderness. Eight survivors of said plane crash will now struggle to stay alive amidst the freezing elements while being hunted by a pack of angry wolves protecting their territory.
Directed by Joe Carnahan (NARC, Smokin’ Aces), The Grey is a lean, down-in-the-dirt low budget production that appears to battle just as hard to tell its story as the men at the center of it. For most of its nearly two-hour running time the story remains taut and compelling, but it does run a bit long in a mildly strained grab at sentimentality as it may have been better off with one or two fewer survivors and a dismissal of the flashbacks.
Leading those that managed to buckle up and survive the crash, primarily due to his intimate knowledge of the wildlife that stalks them, is Liam Neeson as John Ottway. John is a man we quickly come to realize has already lost most of his will to live, but for whatever reason has taken it upon himself to lead this small band in hopes of getting home safely. Ottway’s regular job is that of a sharpshooter assigned the duty of protecting the oil workers from the local wildlife as we see him in the early moments picking off a gray wolf just before it attacks.
This, naturally, has already sparked controversy and it doesn’t help that Carnahan requested four dead wolf carcasses for the shoot from a British Columbia trapper — two for the crew to eat and another two as props. Like I insinuated above, this is a film with claws and it takes the roughneck appearance of its protagonists and applies it to damn near every aspect of the production as it becomes Mission: Impossible – Snow Survival.
No matter where this group turns a new obstacle faces them, be it a pack of glowing eyes and fading cold breath in the dark or the absurd decision to jump off a cliff in hopes of grabbing a tree branch before falling hundreds of feet to the ground. I’m pretty sure not even Ethan Hunt would try most of what happens here, but this, however, isn’t reality. This is the movies, where we are asked to focus on circumstance and overlook logic and a series of contrivances that lead the story on its merry way. So be it, but at some point you have to get on with it.
As a viewer, about midway through I became less interested in the story and more focused on how the film was made as Carnahan seemed to stretch his $34 million budget to the limit. The plane crash and much of the hand-to-hand combat with the wolves (yes, hand-to-hand combat with the wolves) was especially impressive as quick cutting and limited resources seem to have caused Carnahan, his actors and cinematographer (Masanobu Takayanagi) to come up with imaginative ways to make things intense without the necessary resources to show us too much.
Walking away I couldn’t help but be torn. For as hard as Carnahan and crew fought to make an intense survival thriller, they fought equally hard to make the audience care about the characters to the point there’s almost too much information. Fireside conversations, back-story and flashbacks became more of a nuisance than anything else. It was like the film was on permanent life support and didn’t need to be. The Grey is a two hour movie that only needed to be 90 minutes.
I appreciate the attempts at character development and all of it is done very well, but there comes a time when you have to decide whether we are going to get to know these guys or do battle with a pack of blood-thirsty wolves. It plays like a film that was originally designed to be a survival feature, but then a bunch of sentimentality was injected to give it a bit more heart. As a result it all becomes a bit redundant as we spend a few minutes learning about each guy and then a few minutes fighting wolves or jumping off cliffs. Something has to go.
Among the survivors joining Neeson, it’s a mixed bag of personalities. Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, Ben Bray and James Badge Dale all play their part as weathered and on-edge members of the cast. Each brings their own little piece of character to the story and all deliver solid performances even though a couple could have been removed from the plot so as to quicken the pace. I can understand Carnahan enjoyed the performances each of them gave, but sometimes you have to lose a decent scene to make for a better movie.
I was looking through my notes while writing this review and one stood out where I wrote, “Gotta know when to say when.” Flashbacks eventually lead to poetry as the jagged stops and starts in the story began to wear me down. I never lost complete interest as each scene is very well done in and of itself, but it all goes on for too long, tending to repeat itself too often for it to have the overall effect it should have had.
I enjoyed The Grey and think it’s worth watching for its “life vs. death” message and some harrowing and intense moments, but it’s a bit frustrating when you know it could have been so much better.