I have a hypothesis as to one of the reasons why movies like Underworld: Awakening and One for the Money get released at the beginning of the year while Oscar contenders get released at the end of the year: It’s precisely because the Oscar candidates and “Worst of the Year” contenders alike are both decided on at the end of the year. Thus, the January stinkers are spared from most end-of-the-year disgraces, since critics can’t put down movies they don’t remember.
By the same token, even the best films won’t stand a chance at getting nominated if they’re swept from memory by eleven months of movies. Fortunately, rumor has it that The Grey will be re-released in October, because it would be a damn shame if this movie was forgotten come next year’s awards season.
Our story begins somewhere in Alaska, where men are hard at work mining oil. One of them is Ottway, played by Liam Neeson. He’s a hired killer for the oil company, but don’t worry, he’s not a hitman. Instead of shooting people, Ottway is hired to shoot wolves, bears, and other such local animals that threaten the workers and equipment.
As for Ottway’s co-workers, it becomes obvious very early on that these men were not hired for their brains. These miners are all blue-collared knuckledraggers. They are nothing but muscle and machismo, spending every waking hour roasting in alcohol and their own testosterone. Yet Ottway is different from them, mostly because he’s visibly tired of living like a caveman and taking lives (albeit animal ones) for his wages. And Ottway is also estranged from his wife, which doesn’t improve his mood.
So it is that when we first meet Ottway, he’s in a near-suicidal funk. A lesser actor might not have been able to make the voice-overs work or the depressingly emo character interesting, but this is Liam Fucking Neeson. He radiates gravitas and charisma the way most other people shed skin cells.
Anyway, Ottway and several of his co-workers get on a plane to take some leave at Anchorage. But at the 15-minute mark, the plane crashes, killing all but Ottway and a half-dozen others of those on board. Thus, we have our plot of the film: These oil miners — barely more than animals themselves — have to trek through untamed wilderness and unrelenting snow as they search for any sign of civilization. Oh, and did I mention that there’s a den of giant fucking wolves somewhere nearby? Yeah, there’s a huge pack of wolves living in the area and our crew has no way of knowing if they’re walking into or out of the hostile territory.
At its core, the movie follows your basic horror movie formula. There’s a group of people that must work together to survive, yet they squabble with each other as a terrifying force picks them off one by one. That said, there are a few refreshing changes to the standard conventions. Yes, there is an annoying comic relief, but he mercifully gets killed off very quickly in the proceedings. Yes, there’s an asshole who bickers with everyone just for the sake of it, but he more or less learns his lesson at the halfway point. And though there is a black guy, he doesn’t get killed first.
In fact, the kills in this movie are really quite varied. A couple of guys get eaten by wolves, yes, but a few others die from exposure. There’s another guy who drowns to death. There’s even a guy who basically says “fuck it,” just giving up and waiting around to die. On one level, this variety ensures that the various deaths don’t grow stale. On another level, this helps make the wilderness the “slasher” of the film, in addition to being the setting.
I’d also add that unlike most slasher films, the deaths aren’t treated as ends in themselves. Movie franchises like those of Halloween and Friday the 13th are built on the catharsis of seeing assholes get brutally dismembered. This movie, on the other hand, is built around immersion. The filmmakers don’t want you to laugh at the victims, they want you to feel the victim’s pain. As such, the kills are filmed in a very grisly manner that’s quite purposefully devoid of joy or spectacle.
That said, the wolves in this movie are really fucking spectacular. These canines are legitimately terrifying, brought to life with some great animatronics and vivid CGI. The filmmakers even take a few slight artistic liberties, such as making the wolves’ eyes glow disturbingly bright in the dark. The sound design makes them all the scarier, as our characters often find themselves in total darkness, surrounded by snarls and howls. Thus, it becomes impossible to tell where these wolves are, how many there are, or whether they’re about to strike.
This film is a very powerful reminder that when done properly, animals make for the best movie slashers. With two-legged killers, there’s always some attempt at finding their humanity, learning their origins, trying to negotiate with them or predict what they want. But with Jaws and his ilk, you know instantly that there’s no humanity there and there’s no origin story to be told. There’s absolutely no way to negotiate with them or to get inside their heads, and you know they don’t want anything except lunch. Best of all (again, like Jaws), it’s easy to believe that these monsters could sneak up and attack without any warning.
Finally, it’s worth noting that without exception, all slasher movies are built on the exact same foundation: Desperation. The entire point of survival horror films is to put their characters in the most dire and life-threatening situation possible, for the purpose of exploring how these characters will react and whether they’ll survive. Meanwhile, the audience is implicitly asked what we might do and how we might fare when placed in a similar desperate scenario.
This movie elegantly turns the conceit into a two-hour meditation on the conflict between man and nature. There are several times when the line between the two seems to blur, as the main characters frequently act in a rather beastly manner and the wolves seem to act with a great amount of intelligence. The movie also seems quite interested in asking (though certainly not in answering) the question of just how superior we are to animals when stripped of our modern comforts. In point of fact, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our protagonists just happen to make a living by drilling for natural resources. Also, the film has quite a bit to say on the subject of mortality, fear, and the presence of God, all of which is icing on the cake.
With all of that said, I do have some nits to pick. To start with, as much as I love the action scenes, there are quite a few times when they falter. Sometimes you’ve got scenes like the plane crash, which are immersive to a frightening degree and presented with aplomb. Other times, you’ve got wolf attacks that are filmed with an incomprehensibly shaky camera, and aren’t nearly as fatal as they probably should be. On a similar note, Ottway is an Invincible Hero to a borderline absurd degree, with his moral infallibility and his apparent invulnerability to injury doing a great deal of harm to what’s otherwise a very nuanced movie.
Then there’s a beef that I had with the score. It was all well and good until roughly halfway in, when Ottway reminisces about his dad. During that scene, I heard this. And then it played again at the climax, which was also the movie’s end.
Ink. I was hearing the theme from Ink. Composer Marc Streitenfeld was ripping off the most recognizable piece of a haunting score from the most beautiful and underappreciated indie movie masterpiece that I’ve ever seen. I know that I’m only one person in a couple hundred who would notice that, but I don’t care. In those two moments when the song played, I could barely focus on the movie. I just kept suppressing the urge to scream “FUCK YOU!” at the top of my lungs.
But then I stopped to think about it. And then it occurred to me that Jamin Winans might have some new connections in Hollywood, which can only be a good thing. In a similar vein, I’d like to think that this will help raise awareness of Winans’ marvelous film, but I know better. Also, I was talking with a friend about the matter while writing up this review, and he pointed out that the song did a lot to make the film more poignant in context. Upon further reflection, I quite agree. Finally, I quite deliberately stayed through the credits to see if Winans’ got any credit for the song, and I was relieved to see that he did (even if they spelled his name wrong). So all in all, rage averted.
And speaking of the credits, you might want to stay through them. The movie ends on a cliffhanger, though it really doesn’t damage the film so much as it reinforces the “man vs. nature” conflict. That said, there is a little hint after the credits as to how the cliffhanger resolves. The stinger isn’t vital and there’s still a lot of room for ambiguity, but you might appreciate it all the same.
Despite my minor problems with it, The Grey is a very good movie that manages to enlighten and entertain all at once. There’s a great deal of thematic content to think over, and it’s all presented against the backdrop of a marvelous survival horror story. The special effects are uniformly fantastic, the action scenes (for the most part) are extremely scary for how immersive they are, and Liam Neeson is at the pinnacle of his game. Overall, this is a remarkable movie that’s absolutely worth your time and money.
P.S. Because I can never pass up a chance to plug this movie, please watch Ink. It’s only 106 minutes long, and every second is enchanting. The budget was only $250,000, but it looks like a movie that cost ten times as much. You can watch it for free on Hulu right here, and I’m begging you to do so. Please support this film.