Director Joe Carnahan is known for the hyper-stylized action in films such as Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, and certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice to helm a character-driven tale of wilderness survival, but that’s precisely what he attempts with The Grey, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.
Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a deeply depressed guard at a remote Alaskan oil refinery who spends his days patrolling the perimeter with his rifle, making sure the other workers are not threatened by the local wildlife. The rest of his companions are described by Ottway as “men unfit for mankind,” and it doesn’t take us long to realize exactly what he means, as the way these men treat themselves and each other ranges from questionable to despicable.
While Ottway and the rest of the men are on a flight to Anchorage, a brutal ice storm ravages the aircraft and brings it down, resulting in one of the most harrowing plane crash sequences ever filmed. Ottway regains consciousness in the blistering cold to discover the plane in ruins and the crew dead, along with all but a handful of the passengers. As the men huddle together and build a fire to shield themselves from the elements, a new threat presents itself: a pack of wolves is stalking the campsite.
Ottway and the men elect to abandon the wreckage and set out for the forest, in hopes of putting some distance between themselves and their predators and establishing a more defendable position. Along the way, we learn about each character’s background and their motivations for survival, and as they find themselves relentlessly pursued, the film cleverly begins to paint the men as a wolfpack of their own, with Neeson as the alpha and some of the more impetuous roughnecks challenging his authority, a dynamic that works incredibly well. Much like their feral counterparts, the men begin to realize that despite their differences, their only hope of survival is to band together.
Carnahan far outshines his previous work here, slowly building tension and providing the audience with plenty of white-knuckle thrills while crafting an ever-growing sense of dread and despair. With each passing moment, the odds of survival continue to dwindle, but Ottway is a man possessed, desperately clinging to a life he was ready to throw away just a few days earlier. Neeson’s gripping portrayal will surely be one of the most talked-about performances of the year, and as he stands knee-deep in the snow and stares defiantly into the face of his impending demise, the look of grim determination etched into his face is one that you won’t be able to forget.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10