Directed by Joe Carnahan
The promotional materials for “The Grey” would probably cause you to believe that this is a “Jaws”-like adventure, with sharks replaced by wolves. And that’s certainly an easy way to sell a movie – but the truth is somewhat more complicated and worthy of greater respect.
This isn’t just a movie about men and wolves, and the conflict between them after a plane of oil industry workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Underneath that surface, it’s more about life and death and our ability to determine our own fate. Liam Neeson plays Ottway, a man whose job is to shoot wolves and remove other threats to the men who work in this desolate place. But he’s also a man with tragedy in his past and consequently empty eyes. When the plane goes down, it triggers in him the need to survive – not so much because he has things to live for, but because he isn’t willing to let anybody or anything else dictate his fate.
It’s an interesting and quite profound premise for what might otherwise seem like a shallow action adventure. But it’s also in keeping for co-writer and director (and Sacramentan) Joe Carnahan, who tends to favor stories that are more complex than they appear.
Some detractors have complained that the behavior of the wolves in “The Grey” is unrealistic, but this isn’t a nature documentary. And the wolves themselves are not the only complication in the men’s lives, existing as they do alongside the extreme cold, remote location, and lack of supplies that they’re faced with. As such, the wolves are simply a part of a bundled obstacle, and no more or less a force of nature than the blizzards and low temperatures. They exist as a test within the context of the movie, increased to almost mythical size and actions. They’re simply something to be overcome – and they might just as easily have been bears, ghouls, or invisible beings.
Within this premise are some of the best on-film encounters with death – not simply in the sense of the staged violent ends that we’ve come to expect from the action genre, but philosophical contemplations of what it means to recognize and sometimes accept death, even when it isn’t sought out. And these are genuinely thought-provoking moments: As Carnahan himself said during a recent interview, “…it will become the water cooler talk for days to come. I really believe that. My ultimate goal is that it plays for you for longer than the two hours it took to watch. That’s what I want – because I think so much of movies today are just disposable experiences.” And it succeeds.
The outcome is quite remarkable in that he’s made a film that can satisfy those who are simply looking for a solid roller coaster action adventure, but also those who like to ponder the deeper meaning of a film and the lessons it might evoke, over dinner afterwards, or the next day. It might even cure a dysfunctional family’s inability to choose a movie that appeals to both the parents and the teenagers.