As appealing as the idea may sound, “The Grey” is not a movie about Liam Neeson punching wolves. I’m not saying he doesn’t punch any wolves in the movie, nor am I saying that he does; the point is, that’s not the point. In this bleak and frigid survival thriller, directed by Joe Carnahan (“Narc,” “The A-Team”) and based on a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, the wolves are only a metaphor anyway. They represent death, despair, or fear — anything that might cause a person to give up. (I guess they could represent wolves, too, but that’s not as common to the human experience.)
Neeson, now well-established as a fearsome force of nature himself, plays Ottway, a petroleum-company employee whose job is to keep the crew safe from animals while they’re working in the harsh wastelands of Alaska. The job does not make him happy, nor does anything else. In a letter written to a lost love that serves as narration, Ottway expresses only gloom, misery, and remorse. On the job, he says, he’s “surrounded by my own kind — ex-cons, fugitives, killers, a**holes.” He’s suicidal yet continues to live.
Ottway’s desire to live rather than die is further tested when the company-chartered plane bound for Anchorage crashes in the brutal Alaskan wilds, killing everyone onboard except for himself and six others. (Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, and Joe Anderson are the most recognizable actors in the supporting bunch, joined by Frank Grillo, Nonso Anozie, and Ben Hernandez Bray.) Seemingly lost by their employers and abandoned by God, Ottway — the only one with any survival skills — becomes the de facto leader of the group as they trudge toward safety. Cold, lack of food, and, oh yeah, wolves threaten at every turn.
Carnahan does deliver solid, workmanlike sequences of action, peril, narrow escapes, and death, but it would be a mistake to lump “The Grey” in with other thrillers where Nature bumps off victims one by one, slasher-style. It runs deeper than that, examining the way dire circumstances bring out our true selves. These guys are rough characters on a normal day, full of vulgar bravado and inflated self-confidence, yet in the face of death they become gentler, not tougher. Sitting around a campfire after a day or two in the wilderness, after their group of seven has already had casualties, they talk about tender things like their young children back home. The movie doesn’t invite us to ask ourselves what we would do to survive in this situation. It asks us to reflect on whom we would miss, whose face we would want to remember when death came. This isn’t an adrenaline-heavy, rock-’em-sock-’em action movie, but a thoughtful one, albeit one punctuated with thrilling moments.
It is my understanding that wolves almost never attack humans without provocation, and that “The Grey” does them the same public-relations disservice that “Jaws” did to sharks. I sympathize with the wolves, but I think that’s reading the film too literally. We all have wolves circling us, whether in the form of day-to-day troubles or serious crises. Life itself is a threat — after all, it invariably leads to death. Our character is shaped by the way we respond to our trials.
Ottway speaks frequently of his fractured relationship with his father, and in particular of a short poem the gruff old man wrote: “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.” Notice it’s “live and die,” not “live or die.” You’ll do both over the course of whatever your final battle is; the point is that you can’t know which battle will be the final one. The men in “The Grey” frequently think they’re about to draw their last breaths, but it only winds up being true once per person. You have to keep fighting anyway. You can’t give up. Liam Neeson wouldn’t want you to.
B+ (1 hr., 57 min.; )