You’re watching the opening titles click along, Open Road, Scott Free, the works all rolling through their frames in eerie silence. You think for a fraction of a second that maybe something bad will happen, maybe one of those wolves you’ve seen advertised will erupt into the frame and tear someone’s throat out and perhaps scare the hell out of you. It would be a most opportune time for a jump scare. Instead, wolves bay at the moon, their howls long and bone chilling. I think the howling is more frightening.
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) narrates the opening scene, conveying a “I-don’t-give-a-damn” no nonsense, cynical mindset. He drifts through the cold night like the ghost of someone who died with unsettled demons. A hopeless, broken man. So broken is he that Ottway contemplates and nearly commits suicide, his mouth firmly around the barrel of his rifle until the baying of wolves cuts his actions short. This understandably drawn out sequence is juxtaposed with marksman Ottway shooting a lone wolf that charged some oil drillers, a job he seems born to execute. Ottway respects the animal enough to stay with it until death, almost comforting the creature until its final breath.
A plane ride to Anchorage for oil rig workers on leave (Ottway amongst them) reveals seven more characters of worth, each one playing a significant role in the plot of the film. Flannery (Joe Anderson), the young reckless hick, scared out of his mind, nervous, panicky. Diaz (Frank Grillo) the cynical ex con with a penchant for the f-bomb and bar fights, and his pal Hernandez (Ben Bray). Lewenden (James Badge Dale), presumably a family man. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), the sympathetic and rational religious mind of the group. Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the gutsy father. Burke (Nonso Anozie) the welcomed comedic relief in several key scenes. The plane they’re travelling in crashes, delivering easily one of the most terrifying on-screen plane crashes you’ll ever encounter on film; it’s the stuff of nightmares and fever dreams.
Ottway soon takes charge, seemingly the most experienced man in the group, making the decision to leave the crash site after Hernandez’s mangled body is found the morning after the sudden and brutal wolf attack that led to his death. The forest a few miles away will provide richer shelter against the harsh, unrelenting winter weather, and might work in the group’s favour against the wolves. Superficially, The Grey is about a group of men the world seems to have discarded, “men unfit for mankind”, struggling against unfathomable odds. It’s a classic action adventure with elements of horror, but there’s more to this movie than just teeth and death.
The surviving men find opportunities for conversations that bring to light their wants and desires in life. Obviously, we learn the most information about our hero John Ottway, some though deep philosophical thoughts he seems to have been holding onto for ages, and some throughout the movie in the form of brief flashbacks with his wife. Though they are depicted as group at nearly all times, director Joe Carnahan (and co-writer Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, who also penned the short story Ghost Walker that The Grey is based on) understand perfectly how to treat each character as an individual guided by their own unique desire to survive this horrific ordeal, and live to tell about it. The performances across the board are all great, though Grillo and Neeson seem the most natural, helping maintain the grounded atmosphere the movie carries. Neeson deserved more praise upon release than he ever received for giving such a moving, raw performance.
At the end of the movie (*spoiler alert* for those who haven’t seen The Grey over the past five years) Ottway is alone, freezing, desperate, and significantly more broken than he was when we first encountered him, reflecting on those who fell before him by looking through their collected wallets (the real wallets of the cast). Soon realizing to his dismay that he has found the den belonging to the wolves that have relentlessly hunted him, he reflects upon the passing of his late wife, told through one last heartbreaking flashback, her final words giving him the strength to press forward and fight for his life. After taping a knife and broken bottles to his hands as the alpha wolf approaches him, he delivers the lines to an anonymous poem he mentioned to the group earlier that sat in his father’s office when he was a boy. The screen cuts to black, and we’re left stunned and profoundly moved.
Our only clue as to what went down between man and beast lies in promotional material, a brief glimpse of which is shown in a nightmare Ottway has and nowhere else, not even on the Blu-Ray’s deleted scenes. A post credits scene shows Ottway is alive, resting on the presumably dying alpha wolf, though it remains unclear if he is mortally wounded or just worn out, exhausted.
While the misrepresentation of the final product in the promotional materials irked many, it didn’t bother me like I thought it would because I still understand that the sequence (as awesome as it likely is) didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the movie. Liam Neeson slashing and stabbing a territorial wolf sounds like an epic fight for the ages, but that makes about as much sense as having Roy Scheider repeatedly stab the behemoth shark in Jaws to death while clinging to its dorsal fin. In a movie built on a foundation of callous logic and reasoning, that ending just wouldn’t have sat right in our stomachs, and I’m content with that.