The Grey
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The Grey: What We, as Outdoorsmen, Love About This Survival Movie

This film is a hidden gem that deserves a high spot on anyone's "best movie" list.

The Grey (2011) starring Liam Neeson and directed by Joe Carnahan (who also wrote the movie along with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, the author of the short story, "Ghost Walker" on which the movie is based), got a lot of hype before it was released.

That was largely due to its intense trailer, which ended showing Neeson's character taping broken glass bottles to his one hand, taping a knife to his other, and then battling a giant black wolf, all in quick flashes.

Everyone was on board, and then after it opened, people reported being disappointed and that the wolf fight from the trailer wasn't even in the movie! This, of course, resulted in a less than stellar performance at the box office.

This is why I never saw it in the theater, but I probably should have. And I should have listened to late film critic Roger Ebert's assessment. He gave it a very positive review, in which he emphasizes how much the movie got into his head.

"It so happened that there were two movies scheduled that day in the Lake Street Screening Room (where we local critics see many new releases). After "The Grey" was over, I watched the second film for 30 minutes and then got up and walked out of the theater. It was the first time I've ever walked out of a film because of the previous film. The way I was feeling in my gut, it just wouldn't have been fair to the next film."

At its core, The Grey is a survival thriller told in the best way possible. In lesser hands, this could have been a film about Liam Neeson and a group of disposable, interchangeable survivors that are only there to be picked off one by one until the hero is left alone.

Instead, all the characters in the film are extremely well drawn and developed with distinct personalities and just enough detail about their personal lives revealed to make you care about each and every one of them, but not so much that it comes off as forced or sappy.

The Grey Plot and Setting

Here's the setup for this tale of survival: a group oil workers drilling in Alaska are headed home from a long rotation. John Ottway (Neeson) works as the drilling site's resident marksman. His job is to cover the workers from a distance when they're in more isolated locations and to shoot any wolves who pester them. He's not a happy man who stays as far away from people as he can, deeply wounded by the death of his wife.

The plane crashes due to possibly being struck by lightning (it's one of the more visceral plane crashes ever done in a movie and it will freak you out the first time around). Ottway wakes from a dream to find himself freezing in a vicious snow storm near the sprawling wreckage of the plane.

He and the few survivors left put on what clothes and outerwear they can find to fight hypothermia and huddle in the remains of the fuselage trying to figure out what to do next. Something worth noting: the cold in this movie looks cold, because it was filmed in genuinely cold conditions with real snow. It was hard on the actors, but the results are worth it.

From there, it's a non-stop progression of worsening circumstances, as the group quickly learns they are being stalked by a large pack of wolves.

Cast of The Grey:

  • Liam Neeson as John Ottway
  • Frank Grillo as John Diaz
  • Dermot Mulroney as Jerome Talget
  • Dallas Roberts as Pete Hendrick
  • Joe Anderson as Todd Flannery
  • Nonso Anozie as Jackson Burke
  • James Badge Dale as Luke Lewenden
  • Ben Hernandez Bray as Hernandez

Ottway is the most experienced outdoorsman of the group, and the only one who knows anything about wolves, so he becomes the de facto leader. While most survival movies have a definitive progression of things being good, then things going horribly wrong. Eventually a low point is reached, and the survivors then rally back and against all odds, some of them make it out alive. The Grey doesn't do that. At all.

It's a steady worsening of circumstances as the wolf pack gradually picks the men off one at a time, constantly following the new easy food source it has found.

The men fight back, creating bang sticks from a few shotgun shells salvaged from the wreck, and manage to kill one of the wolves sent in to attack them alone at night. They eat the animal and one man decapitates it, throwing it into the woods with a howl of victory. The response voiced by the wolf pack curdles the blood, even in the safety of your own living room.

There is no genius idea that gets them out of this mess. There is no rescue, and there is no winning. In the end, Ottway is left alone, because all the rest dead. And he finds himself in the dead center of the den where the pack that has been pursuing him lives.

This is where the big faceoff glimpsed in the trailer occurs, but what changed? Well, they filmed Ottway actually fighting the pack's alpha wolf and it was part of the movie when the trailer was cut together, but by the time the final cut was approved, the ending was changed. Ottway is shown preparing for the fight, taping the bottles and knife to his hands, but just as he and the wolf charge at each other, the screen cuts to black.

In a post credit scene, Ottway is shown with his head laying on the wolf, both bloodied from their battle, and both still breathing, albeit shallowly.

Further Thoughts on the Film

Some people have criticized the wolf behavior in the film, saying that wolves would never do the things we see them do, including stalking a group of plane crash survivors as they walk for miles through a frozen landscape in the Alaskan wilderness.

Perhaps I look at this movie a little differently. The first time I saw it, I took the story at face value. But on a rewatch, it occurred to me that there's a different way to watch it.

I like to think that Ottway didn't survive the plane crash at all, and that the events of the film are his dying thoughts, serving as a kind of purgatory to teach him unlearned lessons about his life and to help put his tumultuous soul to rest before moving on. It makes even more sense if you imagine Ottway never got on the plane at all and went through with suicide as he'd intended the night before.

I'm not saying that's how the movie is meant to be taken or that the filmmakers even hinted at it, but I dig the idea and if you rewatch it with that idea in mind, it holds water.

While the stakes and action of this film are a bit exaggerated, there's very little Hollywood in this one. The fear, the desperation, and the determination to survive in the most dire circumstances, it all rings very true in this fantastic movie, which displays a high rank in every outdoorsman's best movie list.