Director Joe Carnahan’s ‘The Grey’ isn’t about survival against the harsh elements of the Alaskan wilds, nor is it about clashing with those
glowing-eyed wolves. ‘The Grey’ is about dealing with crushing loss and still having the will to live and to fight- even if your fate is sealed.
Based on the short story ‘Ghost Walker’ by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (Who also co-wrote the screenplay with Carnahan), ‘The Grey’ succeeds
because it so effectively expresses its psychology. Carnahan’s patience and discipline in developing his characters is something we rarely
see in the thriller genre.
From the opening narrations that culminate in his near suicide, we know that Liam Neeson’s Ottway is no movie action hero. Working as a
gun-for-hire, Ottway hunts wolves that threaten to attack oil drillers in Alaska.
Heading home from the job, the plane carrying Ottway and the oil drilling team goes down in the middle of the wilderness. It doesn’t take
long before they realize the biggest threat to their survival isn’t cold or hunger, but a den of wolves that begin to slaughter them one-by-
Neeson is very good as the de facto leader of the survivors and anchors the film accordingly. Carnahan does a great job in painting
Ottway's past in terms of emotion rather than exposition. The well-integrated flashback sequences are very brief but incredibly effective
while still giving the character an air of mystery.
The supporting cast is also very good and, once again, several of them receive surprisingly well-developed roles. They aren’t just fodder
to be thrown to the wolves.
It’s actually the wolves themselves that hold back ‘The Grey’ from being a top-tier thriller.
While Carnahan shows such admirable patience in dealing with his characters, his direction during the various action sequences is
completely the opposite and near incomprehensible.
It seems that Carnahan was not entirely convinced that the computer-generated beasts would hold up on screen and he works hard to cut
around them whenever possible. The result is a flurry of disorienting close-ups that are far too disconnected to adequately express the
And while the grainy cinematography serves the gritty nature of the story well, it further muddies the situation and perhaps makes the
effects even less convincing.
It really is a shame because ‘The Grey’ does such a superb job establishing its atmosphere and expressing the psychological torments and
philosophical mindsets of its characters.
It succeeds so well in this regard that we actually begin to see the wolves as metaphors instead of monsters.
In this sense, Carnahan is both the film’s biggest contributor and detractor.
But while ‘The Grey’ might not be quite the action thriller it tries to be, its intelligent writing and precise and creative dramatic direction are
enough to earn a cautioned recommendation.
If you are expecting a balls-to-the-walls action-thriller, you might want to look elsewhere. But ‘The Grey’ does work as a steadily-paced,
atmospheric drama about survival against the threats from within as much as the predators outside.
* * *
(out of four)
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo,
Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson
Music by: Mark Streitenfeld
Cinematography by: Masanobu Takayanagi
Released: January 27, 2012; 117 Minutes