Neeson plays John Ottway, a sharpshooter and Wolf Whisperer hired to keep predatory wolves out of an oil station in the remotest part of Alaska. He becomes the leader of a ragtag group of survivors when the plane transporting them to their oil job crashes in the wilderness. Hunted by wolves and exposed to the elements Ottway’s know-how is the only thing between freezing to death, or worse, becoming the big bad wolf’s dinner.
The thing that separates “The Grey” from other man versus nature movies is the characters. At first glance they are the usual assortment of rough and ready characters, the edgy chatterbox, the ex con, but soon nuances appear.
The point of the whole thing is survival, but along the way the cast (Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, and James Badge Dale) discuss the intricacies of life, shed tears, question faith and even recite poetry when not fighting off steely-eyed wolves. You won’t find this kind of behavior in other action movies because those films are about setting up the action and the payoff. “The Grey” isn’t, it wants you to get to know the men so when something awful happens to them, you care.
Mostly it works. (MILD SPOILER) The climax of Frank Grillos’ Diaz character is particularly effective as it gets to the very heart of why—or why not—this man will survive.
As good as the ensemble ism, this is Neeson’s movie. He plays a broken man who has recently lost his wife and the memory of her haunts him. He’s suicidal and lost, but learns a new lust for life in this adverse situation. Whether the tragic loss of his wife in real life informed this role, I wouldn’t presume to day, but there is a haunted quality to his performance that seems deeply felt.
Be warned, however, as intelligent as “The Grey” is, it’s also borders on horror, playing on fear of barren spaces—bring an extra scarf, the howling wind effect alone will chill you to the bone—and well, corpse eating wolves. But even though it is sometimes graphic, it still resonates emotionally.