Once in awhile there are movies that move you. They make you laugh, cry, and talk to your friends in excited voices after the credits roll. Then there are movies that possess you, that you can’t tear your eyes away from. Sometimes you sit there, on the edge of your seat, as if the filmmakers have taped into some primordial part of the brain and are tinkering around inside your head. It’s those films that can be so powerful that it echoes in your mind for days, months, even years after you’ve seen them.
The Grey is one of those films.
The Grey is all about man’s fears. Fear of flying, fear of crashing, of the harsh elements, of the unknown, of being torn apart by vicious wild animals, the fear of being alone, and our fear of each other. Mainly it is about our fear of death and the ways we think up to deal with that fear.
The story follows John Ottway (Liam Neeson), who has been hired by an oil company to hunt wolves that pose a threat to their Alaskan drilling operations. After completing his job he is faced with returning to a world that he no longer belongs to. Ottway has traveled to one of the most remote, isolated places in the world to escape the memory of his wife Ana, who we learn has left him. As the movie opens he writes her a letter, walks into the “town” bar, downs a few shots, then walks out into the cold with his rifle- bent on killing himself. As he sits in the snow with the barrel of the rifle in his mouth, he hears the howling of wolves in the distance and stops.
The next day Ottway boards a very frozen jet with other men returning home from the oil rig as the pilots hurry to take off before a storm closes in on them. During the flight we are introduced to most of the men in the film, nothing brings out the heart of a character like unexpected turbulence. Disneyland’s got nothing on a charter jet in bad weather.
The plane goes down in one of the best crash sequences ever put on film. Ottway, who has visions of his estranged wife throughout the movie, dreams of her under a bright sheet of white- only to awake in a frozen hell. He staggers up over a snow bank to see the wreckage of the plane and in that moment, where he previously had wanted to die, he desperately clings to life, finding the will inside himself to fight.
Inside the wreckage, a man is mortally wounded and panicking as he lies there bleeding out, surrounded by the battered survivors. Shaking, cold, and dying, the man is caught in the grip of shock. It is a horrifying scene in almost every way possible. As the survivors utter phrases like, “You’re going to be alright,” and “It’s not that bad,” Ottway takes the dying man’s hand, calming him and forcing him to look him in the eye. “You’re going to die,” he says, “It’s ok, you’re not alone… Let it slide over you… it’s warm.” He tells the man to let the fear go, to remember the good things, finally asking him, “Who do you love? Let them take you.” From the harrowing crash to this terrifying scene, The Grey kicked me straight in the gut, and never let me up.
The survivors band together to stay alive, searching for food and something to burn. Soon they find they are not alone in the dark, cold hell. Ottway is attacked by wolves while searching for food, and manages to fight them off with the help of the others. A new kind of fear sets in as they find they are surrounded by these deadly animals. Unsure of the wolves’ motivations, Ottway assures the men that motivations aren’t important. Whether because they’ve crashed in their territory, or because they simply pose a threat to the pack, the wolves have targeted them, and that’s all that matters.
The survivors escape the wreckage of the plane and are hunted mercilessly by the pack of wolves as they try to find their way back to civilization. Each one of the characters get flushed out along the way, mostly in conversations by fire-light, and while the story focuses mainly on Neeson’s Ottway, the supporting cast does a great job of giving more depth to the film. The writing is excellent in these scenes thanks to director and co-writer Joe Carnahan, who also made one of my favorite cop movies of all time, Narc.
I won’t go into much more detail, suffice it to say that the film is a race. A race away from the wolves, away from the elements, away from the fear that keeps a person thinking too much in a situation where thought is secondary to instinct. As the chase goes on, and the survivors are picked off one by one, I sat there frozen to the seat, in awe of the images and the story being told. The Grey is truly a terrifying film. From the ferocity of the wolves to the harshness of the cold, I was glad that I had worn an extra sweater to the theater, also that I could leave the darkness and go home to a warm house and a loving smile.
The Grey explores themes that are so deep-seeded in our psyche that it reminded me of a colder, more desolate Jaws. Manly men finding themselves reduced to a lower link on the food chain than that of the beasts around them. The dread is real, the characters are grounded, the acting is solid, and the movie is a brilliant meditation on life, death, and that one constant thing that haunts us in between, our fear.
Stay through the credits on this one.