Title: The Grey
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Director: Joe Carnahan
Screenwriters: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
This is a grey wolf.
Look at it. It’s beautiful – majestic, wild, alien, and fearsome. You won’t see anything like this image in Joe Carnahan’s dreary and unimaginative survival adventure The Grey, though wolves feature prominently in the story. That’s because Carnahan conceives of these magnificent creatures as nothing more than vicious, ugly, slobbering monsters that stalk his heroes from the darkness, occasionally appearing as a mangy shadow or a growling flurry of CGI and puppetry.
Which, fine: it’s a horror movie with wolves as the villains. But sadly the brute force approach is a mere symptom of the larger problem: The Grey may be the most boring possible film about being stranded in the Alaskan wilderness. It begins promisingly enough at a remote oil drilling outpost, with a hard-boiled Liam Neeson voiceover casting the place as a noirish hellhole, a “job at the end of the world” with “men unfit for mankind.” Neeson’s character, Ottway, is a despairing drifter with a lot of history and no future; his woman has left him, and he broods that “I’ve stopped doing this world any real good.” He walks around the plant with a rifle, which doesn’t upset anyone since his job is to keep people safe from marauding wolves. These opening scenes are effectively bleak and oppressive; I was surprised at Carnahan’s facility with mood and atmosphere.
On its way back to the Anchorage home office, Ottway’s charter flight crashes in the middle of a remote snowscape. Carnahan shoots the plane crash with style and verve, keeping the camera close to his protagonist and staying with him even as he’s yanked in and out of a dream. On the ground, Ottway is one of a small handful of survivors – a ragtag bunch of “men unfit for mankind” played by Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts, and a couple of others. One of the men, pinned to his seat and bleeding out, is not long for this world; in a powerful scene, Ottway calmly talks him through dying.
Up to now, the film has been stylish and impressively downbeat, with Neeson giving his assured, no-bullshit character a compelling air of mystery. But things go downhill quickly. Any interest in the mechanics of the characters’ survival in the Alaskan wild is dissolved almost immediately, as it becomes obvious that the film is interested in little but threatening the men with occasional wolf maulings while they bicker and posture at each other. Save for a couple of creepy shots of green eyes materializing out of the darkness, the wolves are singularly ineffective as villains; the special effects are terrible, and there isn’t an ounce of inspiration in the way Carnahan stages the attacks. And the banter between the men is just brutally tedious, the same arguments and frustrations aired ad nauseam. The idea, of course, is that they ultimately build a mutual affection and respect, but you’ll wish they’d just kill each other and get on with it.
Meanwhile, not content with merely making Alaska boring, The Grey methodically neuters the enigma of the main character by revealing banal details of his life via flashback. By the end of the film, Ottway and all of his companions are tortured upstanding citizens. The film ends with a bid for significance that, in context, is simply laughable.
There’s a single interesting scene in the last 80 minutes of The Grey: a long argument set against a stunningly gorgeous vista: a thawing creek and snow-capped mountains. I stared at the scenery until the shrill, tedious dialogue receded. At least, for once, there were no wolves in sight.
— Eugene Novikov