A certain segment of the audience will want The Grey to be about Liam Neeson punching wolves in the throat for two hours. They’re not wrong — that would be a lovely, absurd film — but the actual movie is more of a bleak tone poem about modern man versus nature. Neeson plays, once again, a man with a very particular set of skills: he’s a sniper who picks off wolves so that they don’t maul the guys on an oil-drilling job in Alaska. Depressed one evening, he sticks the barrel of his rifle in his mouth, then seems to think better of it when he hears a wolf howl. That comes to be a familiar sound, because when Neeson’s plane goes down en route to Anchorage, the wolves are a near-constant presence, circling Neeson and the handful of other crash survivors, waiting.
Visually, The Grey is harsh and drab, aside from a few coruscating shots of a freezing river against a backdrop of white mountains. But even that image squashes the men down to size. They don’t belong here; the wolves do. There’s no human civilization in sight; Neeson wearily advises the other men not to pin their hopes on being rescued — “Unless you want to freeze to death. That will come for you.” Director Joe Carnahan and his cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi emphasize the sharp cold and grinding discomfort of the journey. More often than not, the men are imperiled not by hungry wolves but by their own terrible luck bashing up against the remorseless physics of outdoor survival.
At times, the movie could just as well be acted out on a stage, as the men talk about their lives and their loved ones. This is the soul of The Grey, an existentialist thriller in which Liam Neeson faces down the void of God. He commands God, in less polite language: Never mind faith — earn it. Do something; show yourself. The answer is silence. Thus a Bergmanesque despair creeps around the edges of what’s being marketed as a survival action flick. One of the men becomes weighed down by the meaningless sadness of what awaits him if, by dazzling fortune, he should actually happen to survive and return to what passes for his normal life. The Grey is a hard slog and a bummer. I can’t say I was sorry it was over. But it also has the stark purity of an icicle; it earns my respect if not my love.
The dialogue is a bit overexplicit here and there, and the action (especially a bit where the men cross a divide between a cliff and a tree) feels somewhat makeshift. Ultimately, The Grey shakes out as more of a spiritual drama, the spirit simply being the will — or lack thereof — to live in the face of vast futility. The wolves might as well be bears, or cancer, or faulty car brakes. They’re not the villains; the wild is their home, and the plane crash has delivered them some unexpected dinners. Take the wolves out of the equation and you still have an environment that tests human endurance at every turn. Narratively, The Grey is a little amorphous, with an ambiguous ending (a post-credits bit doesn’t clarify matters). It leaves us with some not entirely happy thoughts about humans and our role in the universe; the silence of the movie’s God echoes like a dark bell.