It is hard for me to get excited by a film with previews that look like “Call of the Wild” meets “Jaws.” Liam Neeson’s starring role notwithstanding.
In “The Grey,” Neeson stars as Ottway, a professional hunter who protects the members of a remote oil crew from Alaska’s wildlife. Ottway strikes a depressing image as he writes a letter to a wife that left him, and he holds his hand on the ribcage of a dying wolf. Whether he is coldly feeling the last breaths of his prey, or attempting to comfort it is left open to interpretation.
Ottway writes off himself and all of the men around him as deserving of their place in the wilderness, as though they are all beneath contempt, and predictably considers suicide. Reconsidering his options, he packs his guns and boards a plane to Anchorage.
Here, the previews do the movie a disservice. The plane is going to crash. Going in, everyone that has seen a preview knows that, so the audience is looking for it. The audience is also expecting each and every survivor of the crash to get eaten by wolves, maybe with the hope that the big Irishman will fight his way out of it. I feel the experience would have been better without that foreknowledge and because of that, the thought crossed my mind to go walk around in the lobby for a few minutes.
When the plane finally does go down, Ottway organizes the eight or so survivors. Mirroring the scene with the dying wolf, he tells the man, bluntly, that he is going to die, and comforts him as he passes. Ottway’s knowledge of, and relationship with, death softens the character and clarifies his motivations. Neeson’s deadpan delivery of grim facts reminds me of Robert Shaw’s character Quint in “Jaws,” but with less facial expression.
When the pack of wolves appears, feeding on the dead, Ottway is quickly reminded that he’s not the hunter anymore when he has to be rescued by other survivors. He seems to realize he has made a mistake in challenging the wolf and realizes they will return, and not just for the dead.
It is obvious that the band of survivors has been set up as a parallel of the wolf’s pack structure. Ottway as the alpha, challenged by Diaz (Frank Grillo) and a mix of lower ranking allies of Ottway. The wolf pack starts picking off the weaker members of the group and the survivors collect their wallets, distilling each man’s life into a few pictures.
The film becomes an existential crisis for Ottway as fate takes all of his companions, with the wolves always on their heals. He begins the film ready to die. The survivors give him a purpose making him fight for survival. Then again alone, he finally looks through the wallets, seeing the family members his friends will not see again, and realizing that he has no one, just a letter to a wife that is gone. He is ready to die again, but not without a fight.
This is a film with two endings, one before the credits and one after. The second follows the first, but I don’t know if waiting through the credits made the ending any more definite.
“The Grey” is a better movie than I expected. It is a better movie than the first hour. And it is definitely better than the wolves look. It could be questioned whether a pack of wolves would really behave like these, but if you take them as a force of nature, in their home territory where they have every advantage, that question fades into the background of the story. In the end, “The Grey” proves to be more Jack London than Peter Benchley, and for that I was glad.