American director Joe Carnahan reunites with Irish stalwart Liam Neeson – following 2010’s The A-Team – for The Grey (2011), a suspense-ridden survival tale which, as well as exploiting Neeson’s own personal history, also contains a worrying ethical stand point regarding animal welfare.
A more-grizzled-than-usual Neeson plays Ottway, a widower huntsman employed by an oil corporation to protect their staff from the wolf packs that surround the Alaskan plant. On a return flight home with a group of workers, whom Ottway describes as unfit for “normal society”, the plane crashes and before long the seven survivors discover that the local timber wolf population are close at hand. What follows is a desperate fight for survival and a journey where each man discovers whether he has what it takes to stay alive.
Any audience familiar with the survival movie genre will soon be able to smell out which of The Grey’s characters are likely to survive, as well as those who will be less fortunate. Filmed in British Columbia, the wild, barren and frozen landscapes have been beautifully captured, never missing an opportunity to contrast blood from a kill (human or animal) against the brilliant white snow. As expected, there are the usual moments designed to make an audience jump out of their seats. Admirably, although unsuccessfully, Carnahan also tries to take the genre a little further with some serious attempts at exploring existential themes (humanity vs. nature etc).
The unrelenting antagonism of the wolves is meant to mirror the determination of the survivors to keep on going, even if it means they become less than human. However, the wolves are not like actual animals at all, but savage, almost mythical monsters that seem to exist only to hunt the survivors. Inevitably, this extreme portrayal has a negative impact on the perception of how we view these creatures. Carnahan takes a perverse turn in his representation, shown most clearly in an extended scene where a survivor zealously decapitates a wolf carcass in a truly disturbing and unnecessary manner – as were the rumours that Neeson ate dried wolf meat during production.
As a thrilling survivor tale, The Grey could have been a truly entertaining film. Sadly, Carnahan effort is seriously flawed by its weak attempts at exploring the human condition and a bizarrely warped aggression towards wolves, which destroys most of its credibility.