"Well, I'm really more of a cat person."
When life throws you lemons, you make lemonade. What happens when life throws you man-eating wolves? In THE GREY noted tough guy Liam Neeson plays Ottway, a hired gun so to speak, at a remote oil rig in Alaska. When wild animals breach the walls, Ottway snuffs them out. This desolate location houses a certain type of man, filled either with a love of fighting or booze. Sometimes both. What's never discussed is what would bring these people out here in the first place. Presumably, an admiration for isolation and (hopefully) a lot of money.
It's clear Ottway is a damaged man. We're shown flashbacks of his wife, laying on her side in bed. She tells him, "Don't be afraid." Prudent advice, for sure. After the completion of a job, the group of men huddle in an icy plane ready to return to civilization. In a terrifyingly realistic way, the transport goes down; Ottway awakens in a drift, wreckage and body parts scatter the barren land.
Neeson is at his alpha male best here, dispatching wolves and spitting out the worst bedside manner you're likely ever to hear. Seven survivors remain after the crash, though that number quickly dwindles. There's a reason this land remains unoccupied. A severe lack of food and frequent blizzards blanket the area. Even relieving yourself risks dismemberment and death. Similar to his character in TAKEN, Neeson takes charge from the get-go (he has a particular set of skills...), spouting knowledge of their furry adversaries, stemming from years on the job. The men are led toward the tree line, stating they'll be safer in a more enclosed area. What's evident to everyone but Ottway is that wolves are right at home in the forest.
The cast is a good one. Dermot Mulroney and James Badge Dale appear, though the latter in an unglorified cameo. Each character is unique, allowing for easy recognition, though the actors portraying them are curtained behind facial hair and snow. Diaz (Frank Grillo) in particular stands out. His demeanor is boorish, perhaps distancing himself from the cold reality that inevitably awaits.
Director Joe Carnahan (NARC) does well to let the elements do the heavy lifting. Shot in British Columbia, Canada, the grainy and blurred tones of the cinematography are certainly appropriate. The film epitomizes the man versus wild adage. Ottway and company must endure against impossible odds. Nature and beast are relentless.
There are religious connotations present throughout. Around a makeshift camp fire, the men take turns accounting past memories. Each has experienced his own private horror. The unforgiving life they've chosen is their penance. Why their God would continue to punish them is a cruel, unanswered, final joke. At one point, Ottway looks to the heavens and hollers for help, for a sign. His pleas fall on deaf ears. He's been alone a great part of his life, and he'll continue to be so in his greatest time of need.
THE GREY occasionally falls pitfall to repetition: the wolves attack; the men regroup; they battle the elements, repeat. There is however enough original carnage to keep the appetites sated. There is a poignant moment early on when Ottway shoots an approaching wolf. He walks up deliberately to his fallen prey and gently places a hand on the beast's chest as its breath slowly escapes from its dying body. It's evident there's an unspoken kinship present between the two species. Both are killers; each do it to survive.