My Netflix Queue is Outrageous Ch. 4: The Grey
The problem with trying to whittle down an unreasonably sized Netflix queue is that no matter how many movies I get to, that little number at the top of the screen just keeps going up. It’s impossible to get to the theater as often as I’d like, so stuff inevitably slips through the cracks and occasionally shows up a few months later as a nice surprise via one of the several streaming options we enjoy in this house. That’s awesome, but it’s also a huge issue for someone as easily distracted as I am. I’ll finally be getting around to some poor neglected film that’s been gathering digital dust at the far end of my queue for two years, and then something like The Grey pops up. No matter how much I wanted to see that other movie, it’s just no match for the prospect of Liam Neeson fighting wolves. So, here we are.
The Grey is written and directed by Joe Carnahan, whose other writer/director credits include Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, and in most cases that’s exactly where my the movie would drop off my radar entirely. Throw in Liam Neeson (yes I know he was in the A-Team) and some wolves though, and my interest is officially piqued. It’s a good thing, too, because this is exactly the kind of thing I needed to see: a survival horror film with no zombies. You hear that, every other screenwriter out there? It’s possible to have a group of people cut off from humanity fighting for their survival against something other than the undead. Video game industry, you pay attention as well.
Liam Neeson stars as Ottway, a hunter/sniper working for an oil company in Alaska, a “job at the end of the world” as he describes it. His work entails the killing of wolves that encroach on the drilling operation which might pose a danger to the other workers, who Ottway goes on to describe as “men unfit for mankind”. After a few drinks at a company bar that seems only slightly less dangerous than the Mos Eisley Cantina, crosscut with the writing of a cryptic letter to his former wife, a despondent Ottway wanders out into the snow and puts the barrel of his hunting rifle in his mouth. Of course he doesn’t pull the trigger, but by the time he’s boarding a plane back to civilization with his coworkers, we’ve got a pretty clear image of his station in life. He’s got a depressing job, is constantly surrounded by ex-cons and societal outcasts, nobody waiting for him back in Anchorage…you can’t really fault his general indifference regarding his own survival. Then, the plane crashes.
All but a handful of passengers are killed in the crash, and those left alive are stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing but snow as far as the eye can see. Ottway immediately goes to work, organizing everyone in an effort to secure shelter, build a fire, and gather supplies from the wreckage. Before the end of the night, however, it becomes clear that the cold is the least of their concerns as a group of wolves roughly the size of lions begin moving in on the makeshift camp, drawn by the dozens of bodies littering the ground. Not content to simply scavenge remains, the wolves soon begin picking off the survivors one by one. Supplies are quickly packed up and the group goes on the move, with Ottway hopeful that they can make it outside the “kill radius” surrounding the wolves’ den.
Everyone more or less behaves appropriately for a crisis situation, rallying around the one guy who seems to know what he’s doing. The Grey is not without its horror movie cliches though, the biggest being the lone voice of dissent in the crowd. Diaz, the token naysayer played by Frank Grillo, is trouble from the outset. He tries looting the corpses of his coworkers, complains about every plan, and repeatedly demands to know why Ottway should be in charge. I know you have to have some drama in the group, but questioning the guy who literally makes his living defending you from wolves seems a little forced and lazy. The character eventually gains some depth, but it’s tedious for a while.
That aside though, everything else is great. The wolves themselves are a mystery, often arriving out of nowhere, and killing more for sport than for food. They walk a fine line between nature and the supernatural, and succeed in being more unsettling than any zombie horde has been in decades. The lack of any expository pseudoscience surrounding their extreme behavior is refreshing, and in terms of “animals gone awry” stories it leads more towards The Birds than Deep Blue Sea, which is a rarity these days. Nothing frustrates the general American moviegoer more than the lack of a concise explanation (no matter how ridiculous) and a clear-cut ending, and I applaud any film that successfully avoids pandering to that crowd.
The movie was filmed in British Columbia, Canada, in actual wilderness, and as such it often features actual snowstorms. The benefits in this sort of film when you have a cast that’s actually cold and uncomfortable and in the middle of nowhere are enormous, and the unrelenting snow presents such a danger that it’s easy to occasionally forget about the pack of giant wolves just out of sight. Which of course makes it all the more effective when those wolves do show up again. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is also beautiful, and it’s interesting to be presented with such an amazing and pristine landscape that has so many ways of killing everyone unfortunate enough to be there.
The Grey is exceedingly well put-together, and while some of the supporting characters might be little one-dimensional, the overall action and pacing of the film combined with Liam Neeson’s performance more than make up for it. The concept is also unique and executed perfectly. It’s a surprising breath of fresh air for its genre, and all I can do is hope that it inspires other filmmakers to take notice and perhaps stop driving the same old conventions into the ground for a little while. That’s probably unrealistic in a world where I literally can’t go one day without hearing or reading the words “zombie apocalypse”, but I guess you never know.