Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is the most despairing anti-adventure since L’avventura. In spite of its survivalist action/thriller trappings, this is a profoundly tragic tale of emasculation, dehumanization, and the ultimate defeat of Man against hostile, inhospitable Nature. There are no heroics, inspiring speeches, badass action climaxes, and certainly no comprehensible photography during the handful of violent scenes. The clearest action beat is when grieving widower Liam Neeson deepthroats the barrel of his hunting rifle and prepares for self-erasure when a distant howl snaps him back to reality and out of his faux-Malick introspective voiceover/montage. What else could this be but a clarion call summoning him to a greater destiny? What if his greater destiny is to be flung by the short hairs into a waking nightmare of slow, numbing death?
Neeson, who might as well be playing himself (albeit with slightly more knowledge about wolves), is soon plunged along with a handful of identical bearded middle-aged men into a Godforsaken Hellscape. The much ballyhooed plane crash that incites the plot is a loud, incomprehensible shakycam nightmare, as is de rigueur for low-budget productions these days; likewise, once the unspecified subspecies of the venerable Gray Wolf shows up come nightfall, they are viewed either in hazy long shots or blurry, jittery close-ups. Soon it becomes apparent that the wolf pack is but a thematic mirror to the group of similar (yet racially diverse!) hairy tough guys armed with little but improvised bludgeons and empty macho attitudes.
Tellingly, the relationship between the two packs becomes adversarial once one of the Mexicans takes a leak outside the mangled airframe serving as shelter for the beleaguered humans. For the unforgivable offense of marking territory outside the confines of the den, the sap is immediately vivisected, his innards strewn across the snow as a crude line of demarcation, and the airframe is saturated with a gallon of wolf urine. This is little more than a territorial dispute, but the touchy-feely humans will not have any of it and immediately begin planning their excursion to the dubious safety of “the woods”, despite not having a compass, a map, or any survival instinct among them. Or, more importantly, any idea that fleeing their shelter has now marked them as easy prey, weaklings ripe for the culling.
There is a refreshing lack of sentimentality given to these doom-laden proceedings. Fallen comrades are memorialized by taking up a wallet collection and burdening the least muscular survivor with a satchel packed to the brim with bloodied billfolds full of tattered snapshots and video store membership cards. An infantile Hispanic ex-con’s faith is represented by a chintzy Sharper Image watch with a pull-string GPS signal trailing a tangled coil of excess wire. A frank campfire discussion on theistic matters is cut short when the outcast of the wolf pack mauls the outcast of the human pack. Off-screen wolves respond to a shouted barrage of profane blasphemy with a chorus of howls. The group’s designated Holy Fool is revealed to have an acute case of hypoxia, and shortly thereafter perishes in a blizzard.
At a certain low point, Neeson is reduced to cursing at the heavens, asking the Almighty to make Himself known; despite his resigned, hilarious utterance of “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself,” Carnahan is showing his hand in this scene. By not bringing the obvious religious subtext front and center, The Grey works much better as an allegory. The wolves already have a supernatural ability to come and go as they please, to maim and dismember at will without giving their victims, much less the audience, time to process the violence before vanishing and leaving behind bloody footprints into the great white unknown. Neeson’s parallel, the freakish and all-powerful Alpha Wolf, likewise casts an enormous shadow over the film despite appearing on screen but a handful of times. What else could this beast represent but the looming specter of Death Itself? The abrupt ending suggests as much, with a final charge into oblivion serving as the only catharsis for the audience, but maybe it’s just sloppy filmmaking.
Perhaps I am praising The Grey for little but its awkward fumbling at greater themes, for its fruitless flirtation with difficult and thorny issues. Quite possibly it is but a slapdash adventure yarn with a handful of standout scenes and a wonderful, anguish-laden, intense performance by Liam Neeson. Perhaps I’m looking too much into stylistic decisions such as Masanobu Takayangi’s photography going from jittery, handheld, close-quarters documentary style to extremely wide-angle panoramas dwarfing the group as it dwindles down to nothing, or the Malick-style childhood flashbacks that suggest Carnahan is a huge fan of Tree of Life. Maybe it’s the simple fact that I can’t dislike a film that not only has an offhand reference to Grizzly Man but also has the courage to give the annoying Curt Cobain looking weirdo who cracks the joke a suitably grisly demise.