More than a frenetic survival film, The Grey attempts to transcend its human-versus-nature premise to tackle meatier philosophical themes. This effort, though sometimes overdone, creates a thoughtful piece of cinema worth experiencing.
The film, based on the short story "Ghost Walker" by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, follows a group of ultra-masculine oil riggers who must face the elements and a pack of enraged wolves after their plane crashes in wild Alaska. Jeffers adapted the story for the screen along with Joe Carnahan, who also produces and directs.
Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a troubled hunter whose commanding presence and knowledge of wolves brings him forth as unequivocal leader of the group. Neeson succeeds in bringing depth to Ottway, transitioning seamlessly between gritty survivalist and insightful truth-seeker.
The first poignant moment comes at the fiery crash site, where a man injured from the fall quakes in fear of his imminent death. In one of the film's high points, Ottway calms the man in his last moments of life as the few tearful survivors look on.
But squeamish moviegoers beware – the deaths continue with increasing levels of gore. As the men abandon the crash site in search of safe territory, the film turns to several graphic kills by the unbelievably man-hungry wolves.
The frozen scenery, filmed in British Columbia, heightens the artistic quality of these melodramatic moments with a few powerful shots of bloody red paw prints surrounding the dead men's bodies in the otherwise pristine snow. The occasional howl of an unseen wolf is equally bone chilling.
Interspersed between these scenes, Carnahan attempts what few adventure films do: to explore a philosophical meaning behind the men's unfortunate situation. In moments of bonding over their common fear and will to survive, the men reminisce about their families and question God's role in the universe as they grapple with the possibility of imminent death.
Transitions between scenes of gripping adventure and sincere emotion happen swiftly and frequently, making it difficult to invest in either of the film's main components. Ottway's calming hallucinations of his beautiful wife (Anne Openshaw) in particular are oddly placed and never fully explained.
A strong performance from Frank Grillo as Diaz, an aggressive loner you love to hate, stands out among the supporting characters. While most of the men are inadequately developed before their grisly demise, Diaz proves to be an emotional investigation of character in the face of intense struggle.
The final scene is a powerful demonstration of humanity's drive to live. It's an impressive moment for Neeson and a strong finale that combines introspection and edge-of-your-seat action. Though riveting, it by no means answers the lofty questions the film presents.
Carnahan admirably brings his film beyond pure action-adventure, but most attempts to explore the big ideas he introduces fall flat into melodrama. If you decide to engage in the icy gore of The Grey, be sure to stick around for the credits: The footage that follows will leave you asking even more questions.