“Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”
Man versus nature stories are as old as time itself and through the years we have seen many films that have covered this territory before including Castaway, The Birds, Dante’s Peak, and The Day After Tomorrow just to name a few. What is it that The Grey has to offer that these various other films covering similar territory don’t have? For starters the film stars Liam Neeson and is produced by the Ridley and Tony Scott who have both have quite a bit of weight in the industry. Does The Grey present a modern survival tale that succeeds expectations or is this movie just another rip off of the films in the $5 bin at walmart?
The Grey is a film about a man named John Ottway who protects oil drill workers from wolves in the area. The movie begins on a very sad and depressing note as we see that Ottway wishes to kill himself as he writes out a suicide letter and goes into the middle of nowhere with his rifle. Just as he is about to pull the trigger he hears wolves howling which causes him to stop. The movie then cuts to the next morning when Ottway and the other oil drill workers are boarding a plane to leave. Part way through the flight the plane malfunctions and crashes. Ottway wakes up in the middle of a blizzard and crawls to the plane to look for survivors. When he gets to the plane there are only a handful of survivors left. After convincing a man to meet death with open arms, Ottway quickly takes charge of the situation and rallies the group to work together. Later that night after the survivors have built a fire, Ottway comes across a wolf that attacks him. Because Ottway is an expert on wolves, he realizes that they are all in a wolves den and the wolves will kill them. This puts the survivors at odds with the weather, terrain, and wolves inhabiting the area. From this point the movie becomes about getting to know the small group of survivors as they stare death in the eye and try to fight back.
This story certainly isn’t anything new, but it does tell a story we’ve already heard before in an extremely engaging way as I don’t believe I’ve seen a movie about man versus wild this well done before in film. I also have to add that the movie really did keep me on the edge of my seat guessing as to who(if anyone) was going to survive which gave the movie an extra layer of suspense that you don’t see in many movies anymore. Even though I’ve seen movies similar to this before, the way the movie was set up, I legitimately wasn’t sure how things were going to end up for the characters. Because the story was so straightforward, it was imperative that the film immerse the audience into the world of terror that the survivors were living in. The thing this movie really had to do to sell the story was craft an environment that seemed hopeless and lifeless while also appearing dynamic, and of all the things the story got right I’d say it was the environment that the survivors had to live in. It was cold, empty, terrifying, and intense. The movie also did a great job at making the wolves really scary and intimidating. It seems like in recent years that wolves have been tamed in cinema even when they are supposed to be wild beasts, but this movie takes wolves and makes them scarier than anything I’ve seen in a horror movie in recent years. The story may be a simple one that seems very familiar, but make no mistake, the movie succeeds at creating a suspenseful tale set in a truly hopeless and immersive environment filled with many layers including spirituality,man verses wild, and man’s place in the world.
The film has a surprisingly character driven tale at its core as we get to know the survivors fairly well by the time the film ends. Neeson does a great job as always as he continues to prove that he is a force to be reckoned with. Neeson plays Ottway as a man who is conflicted between wanting to die because of his pain, but wants to survive by instinct. We learn that Ottway has a wife who he believes has unfairly left him, and because of this he wants to die, but once he is in the wild he discovers that he has always had an inclination to fight to survive because of his family and instincts. Neeson plays him as tough, but soft at heart. The supporting cast is made up of some lesser know names such as Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale. All of these actors do a formidable job at playing these great foils to Neeson’s Ottway. Each of them have their own stories, traits, and dynamics that feed into the overall situation. Each of them is needed to create the specific dynamics Ottway needs to come to a huge realization at the end of the film. I will admit that this movie really was able to hit an emotional chord in me using some of these character’s stories and fates. There is one scene in particular near the end of the movie where Ottway breaks down and begs God for help when he admittedly said he couldn’t believe in such things earlier in the film. It was certainly a big part of the characters journey, and his actions truly did resonate with me and where I’ve been personally in my life. More objectively I think that this part of his character arc is a huge turning point that pushes the movie and Ottway’s arc toward its conclusion. The movie excels at delivering very personal moments with each of the main characters. The Grey is a fine character work that really does take these initially unlikable characters and makes them sympathetic and memorable.
Joe Carnahan does a solid job directing by blending these elements of character, environment, and suspense. The movie generally balances these different elements really well without becoming too much about one or the other. The character side of things certainly has the most weight, but the movie would be nothing without the suspense that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats guessing. The film also boasts some really interesting editing choices and some beautiful cinematography with the terrain making for some great scenery. Carnahan certainly leaves a unique stamp on the movie that I’m not sure another director could have. I will say that although the movie is extremely well done and is fairly defined; there are times when the movie feels just a tad generic(especially in the first half of the film) with the premise looking familiar, feeling familiar, and playing out in a familiar fashion. The movie certainly more than makes up for this in the second half of the film, but it still would have been more interesting if the set up for the film could have been done just a little differently. Putting this minor quibble aside; I think the direction for this movie is a really solid one, but not a totally masterful one. Carnahan is slowly proving that he has what it takes to be something special, and The Grey is another stepping stone in the direction of being exceptional.
Overall I think The Grey is a great(no pun intended) movie that has a solid direction, immersive and suspenseful story, and some truly well written and heartfelt characters. The movie may have a few small bumps such as small pacing issues and a familiar premise that pop up from time to time, but the good far outweighs the bad in this movie that has the ability move me and resonate with me in a way that not many films(particularly in this genre) can.
There’s nothing that new in this tale in terms of story as the premise will be a very familiar one to most viewers. With that said, the movie executes this idea and premise with an a amazing amount of finesse that allows the story to still feel interesting and engaging. The brutal story about man versus the wild is filled with suspense that should leave the audience guessing right up until the end.
Liam Neeson does a terrific job leading the cast as the conflicted John Ottway who wishes to die out of grief, but fights to survive out of instinct. The supporting cast of characters are all great foils for Ottway because of their ability to push him one way or another as the leader. Each of these characters have interesting stories to tell, and each of these stories in some way or another hits an emotional core that few movies in this genre can tap into. The latter half of the movie is filled with character moments that will certainly give the audience something to walk away with.
Joe Carnahan does a great job at balancing the various elements this movie needed to work, the least of which is crafting a terrifying, intense, and seemingly hopeless environment for the characters to survive in. That being said, Carnahan still struggled to keep the initial premise from seeming just a bit too familiar. The movie certainly goes onto to become its own film, but the initial set up and premise all feel pretty generic. Carnahan does bring some really cool style to the film with some unique editing decisions and beautiful cinematography(mostly any shot of nature).
Overall Effectiveness of the Movie: 9.0
The movie succeeds when making a character driven tale of man versus nature. The weather, environment, and wolves make for a very suspenseful movie that kept me engaged from beginning to end with a few hiccups in the pacing along the way. The movie is able to incorporate many different themes of nature, God, and man’s purpose in nature throughout the film which gives it more layers than one sees initially. The movie also delivers many brutal and intense fight scenes between the survivors and the wolves that a large chunk of the audiences are probably hoping for.
Overall Score: 9