Movie Review: The Grey
By Matthew Huntley
February 2, 2012
Most thrillers function according to the idea that we want to be the characters, specifically the heroes. After all, they’re the ones who overcome the odds, who lead others to salvation, and who ultimately survive. They do all this in spite of the heavy burdens placed upon them, which can be any variety of potentially fatal situations, people or forces of nature. In some ways, we think it might be fun to be the hero because it would be exhilarating, not to mention others would identify with us and, in turn, applaud our efforts.
The Grey is a different kind of thriller because it does everything in its power to make us NOT want to be the characters. It sees them and their situation through a grim and realistic lens, versus one that’s heightened by romanticism, contrived plot devices or a comfortable certainty of knowing what’s going to happen. All these qualities make it uncommonly dramatic and powerful.
From the first frame, the story puts its people in a cold state of misery that we’re thankful not to be a part of, even though the atmosphere is so palpable it forces us to empathize with them and nearly affects us physically. In a frozen, whited out region of Alaska, Ottway (Liam Neeson) is one of the many rough, lonely and angry men who works for an oil drilling team, among them ex-cons that society would like to pretend don’t exist. Ottway’s job is to protect the parameter from the surrounding wolves. He carries around a sniper rifle and keeps a watchful eye, though his duties bring him little pleasure and he’s on the verge of suicide because he mourns the relationship he had with his wife (Anne Openshaw).
On a flight back to the mainland, the plane crashes (in an eerily authentic sequence) and leaves Ottway and various other survivors stranded. Threatening their lives are not only the freezing temperatures and lack of food and shelter, but a pack of wolves that is gradually moving in. Because Ottway is a man who understands a wolf’s nature, he explains to Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Diaz (Frank Grillo), Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Burke (Nonso Anozie), Flannery (Joe Anderson) and Hernandez (Ben Bray) that they’ve entered the animals’ territory, which can be as vast as a 30-mile radius. Their den may not be far off, and to keep the wolves at bay, it’s important the men surround themselves with fires, stay together and make their way toward sylvan surroundings.
Given what I just told you, it would be all too easy to label The Grey as just another one of those “man vs. nature/survival” movies, and while it does fit that description to a degree, it tries hard to go against the grains of convention. There are some inevitable developments, like one member of the group trying to play the tough guy and another trying to be the jokester, and we can also anticipate certain deaths. On the other hand, the movie avoids the pitfalls of lazy plot devices. For instance, Ottway teaches the guys how to create a makeshift gun using only a bullet and stick, while Diaz holds onto a watch that has a built-in GPS system. In a lesser thriller, these devices might have played a larger role and showed up later, but that’s not necessarily the case here. The movie is not interested in quick and easy fixes.