Man V Beast in Joe Carnahan’s contemplative yet brutal thriller The Grey

Liam Neeson battles man and beast in Joe Carnahan’s contemplative yet brutal thriller about plane crash survivors trying to stay alive in the Alaskan wilderness.

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Liam Neeson strips away modern living’s technological connectivity and penchant for salt-filled, fat-bulging convenience food in favour of caveman-style slumming in the Alaskan wilderness. Of course, his predicament, along with a bunch of other bearded oil workers, is enforced upon him after the plane carrying him home crashes during a storm. However, you get the sense that this introverted, melancholic alpha male is more at home in nature’s bosom than waking to a digital alarm alerting him to his nine to five in a characterless high-rise.

Neeson’s John Ottway represents The Grey’s key theme – man returning to a simpler way of living, surviving by adapting to and battling nature. Perhaps the fact these men earn their living digging for the natural world’s most cherished resource – oil – is co-writer and director Joe Carnahan’s wry aside, pre-empting their fight for survival when nature bites back. For when their plane crash lands, the handful of survivors have no time to pat their limbs to make sure they’re still attached. The Alaskan ice and snow might be inhospitable to man but it’s the playground of some of the world’s most fierce predators. It isn’t long before Ottway and the gang are being picked off one by one by a pack of wolves mightily pissed off at this man-made intrusion.

The Grey has a lot in common with Frank Marshall’s Alive. The 1993 disaster-survival film sees a college rugby team forced to survive the sub-zero temperatures of a mountainous nowhere in the Andes after their plane similarly crashes in bad weather. There’s also a distinct nod to 1997’s The Edge starring Anthony Hopkins and Alex Baldwin (man versus man versus bear), while Deliverance’s macho posturing and otherworldly reality makes an appearance too. And, particularly like Deliverance, there’s a tangible threat that goes beyond the lack of food, altitude sickness and blood-freezing cold, this time in the form of a pack of vicious, unrelenting wolves. Carnahan drives the story through the wolves’ constant, calculated attacks, creating a breathless tension that simmers ceaselessly underneath the surviving group’s dwindling sense of hope.

“Liam Neeson strips away modern living’s technological connectivity and penchant for salt-filled, fat-bulging convenience food in favour of caveman-style slumming in the Alaskan wilderness.”

Yet, The Grey never feels like a monster movie. Indeed, its “horror” is grounded in authenticity. Certainly, some wonderfully unsettling sequences are as good as anything found in John Carpenter’s icy thriller The Thing for instance. The sight of the wolves’ eyes appearing out of the darkness, reflected in firelight, or a rogue attack around a campfire (reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London) stand out but there’s more to The Grey than that.

Amidst the carnage, much of it off-screen, the experience of survival brings out the best and worst of people (one of the survivors starts looting the dead, for example). Perhaps most glaringly, Carnahan explores existence itself, and what brings meaning to life. In the hellish surroundings of the Alaskan wilderness, these terrified men cling to hope through the memories of their loved ones. It is the presence of death, it seems, that brings a sort of clarity. This is exampled early on in the film when a contemplative Ottway, considering suicide, is completely switched off to the inane barroom brawl and insignificant ramblings going on around him. Believing death is around the corner, he has already found his “clarity”. This develops an interesting dynamic within the surviving group that significantly moves the film away from the sort of anonymous deaths you see lined up in slasher films.

The Grey’s philosophical approach might be off-putting to some, while its lack of obvious closure invites questions not answers. However, as a thriller with substance, there are few missteps. The Grey motors along with a strong performance from Liam Neeson leading the way. It gets under the skin with some terrific sequences (the plane crash is particularly impressive in its horrid authenticity) while intelligently evoking the harshness of survival in characters we come to care about. As the man versus nature genre goes, the film certainly distinguishes itself as one of the best.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

the-grey_film-posterDirected by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan, Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale
Released: 2012 / Genre: Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB
Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD | Blu-ray
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See more great films from 2012

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Mark Reply

    “The Grey’s philosophical approach might be off-putting to some, while its lack of obvious closure invites questions not answers.”

    Good review, but not sure about these points …. I was certain I saw bits of Terrence Mallick in there; plus the post credits shot gave me as much closure as I needed for a yarn like this.

    I preffered the plane crash in this than the one in Alive – there seemed to be a little less spectacle in it, which made it edgier. Plus, as strangely sentimental as Dylan Mulroney’s death scene was, it was well done.

    Did this appear on anyone’s top 10 for 2012, because looking back it probably deserved to be there ….

  2. Dan Reply

    @Mark: I agree that it probably deserved to be on top 10 lists of 2012 – it’s certainly one of the better films to come out of Hollywood (and I enjoyed this a lot more than Neeson’s recent Unknown which has a lot of fans).

    I suppose the post-credits scene gives some sense of closure but again it is ambiguous and leaves it up to your imagination. Of course, many might not have realised there was anything to see after the credits rolled (me included – I read about it afterwards and went back to watch it).

    Good point about the plane crash – again, leaving much of what happened up to the imagination heightened the overall impact of it. I thought it was terrifically well orchestrated and leads into a harrowing scene where Lewenden passes away (quite a pivotal moment in terms of the film’s themes and the way it interacts with the audience). I don’t recall seeing many death scenes as affecting as this one in a long while.

  3. le0pard13 Reply

    Easily one of my favorite films from 2012.

  4. Fogs Reply

    Nice review Dan! I totally agree. This definitely is one of the best survival films around. You picked a number of excellent “film relatives” in there, too! 😀

  5. ruth Reply

    I did see Alive and boy it was heartbreaking! My brother spoiled the ending to me unfortunately [darn him!] but I might still give this a shot to see Liam’s performance. Good thing he actually had one good movie last year, ahah.

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