Prepare to be devastated. Films of hair-raising terror about people doing unspeakable things to each other are a dime a dozen, usually with a built-in hole in their armor (people can always outsmart people). But movies about helpless humans versus uncontrollable nature are rare. A new one called The Grey, about the survivors of an airplane crash in the frozen wastes of Alaska at the mercy of carnivorous wolves, is the movie equivalent of a wet finger in a hot socket.
This is the scariest wilderness survival movie about men stalked by animals since Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins landed on the menu of a bloodthirsty, 10-ton grizzly in Lee Tamahori’s 1997 thriller The Edge, written by David Mamet. Liam Neeson stars as a decent man doing a tour of duty in an isolated oil refinery in the Alaskan wilds with a crew of ex-cons, drifters and other rejects from society with whom he has nothing in common. Haunted by memories of better times, a woman who left him and a small ray of hope that when he gets back to civilization he’ll play a better hand of poker, he boards a plane home that crashes in an explosion of flames with only six survivors. Cut off from cell phone signals and every other form of communication, the men are wounded, suffering from frostbite, understandably pessimistic, pondering suicide and surrounded by howling wolves. As the men crawl away from the wreckage to search for a sign of life, the sound of a helicopter overhead or the curl of smoke from a remote cabin chimney, the wolves get closer. I’ve read that wolves get a bad rap; they’re not aggressive and run from people. These wolves are different. They’re ravenous, territorial timber wolves—carnivorous, bloodthirsty, hungry for meat. While the dwindling handful of survivors search for a way to defend themselves, scenes filled with nerve-frying suspense build steadily, paralyzing you with anxiety. If possible, wear gloves or your nails could get chewed to the quick.
With a lack of oxygen to the brain in the altitude, the men suffer from hallucinations and wander away from the fire into harm’s way. Without weapons and unable to run because they’re up to their knees in snow, they’re tough alpha males, but before they can even formalize their strategy they get picked off, one by one, torn limb from limb and devoured by killers with molars like fangs. There’s graphic gore, but miraculously, the writers also find humor in the men’s natural coarseness. When they cook one wolf to stay alive, the gruffest man says, “I’m more of a cat person myself.” The word harrowing doesn’t begin to cover it. You can’t avoid wondering, “What would I do if this happened to me?” One last rant at the sky, one final plea for help, one more challenge to the Almighty to prove His existence, and escape remains impossible. All the more reason for men with nothing in common to turn their conflicted tensions into a sustained interdependence to stay alive.
Alaska is played by the wilds of Canada. The men who support leader Liam Neeson are played by actors with more brawn than beauty, including Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney, unrecognizable with long, matted hair and a white beard, as one of the more pragmatic survivors. Written and directed by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team), it’s basically a one-note narrative with nowhere to go except straight into the jaws of tragedy, but the film manages to give each man enough room for character development to make you feel like you’re living through this white-knuckle experience with them. It’s one of the most captivating studies of shared peril. The Grey avoids smug clichés, takes you to places you least expect and settles for no comfortable solutions, while it explores the dark shadows of the male psyche and finds more emotional fragility there than you find in the usual phony macho myths from Hollywood.
Running Time 117 minutes
Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Starring Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo