Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
A harrowing tale of survival, “The Grey” depicts a plane crash that leaves a handful of survivors stranded in the wilderness with a predatory pack of wolves hot on their trail.
Ottway, a melancholy, determined character, played by Liam Neeson, firmly anchors the film to the action, and to the philosophical underpinnings that wash over this otherwise macho tale.
Those who have seen “Jeremiah Johnson,” a gripping 1972 man-versus-elements story (starring Robert Redford during Redford’s heyday), may recall that film asked how a man alone, beset by terrible circumstances, maintains his will to live. Something similar happens in “The Grey.”
As the film opens, we meet John Ottway (Neeson), a marksman tasked with killing predators that menace the employees at a remote Alaskan oil rig.
During his last shift in camp, Ottway shoots a wolf, then places his hand on the creature’s chest as it draws its final breath. This will be the first of many times he gives comfort to some living thing as its life drains away.
When Ottway, along with several dozen others, boards a company plane bound for another company encampment, we see a scrappy ground crew sweep snow from the plane and apply de-icer. The passengers, roughnecks accustomed to living on the edge, take no notice of the harsh conditions until the storm begins to toss and turn their plane as an ocean squall might agitate a small boat.
Ottway awakens from a dream about the idyllic wife who left him (an angelic creature in white played by Anne Openshaw), to find himself half buried in snow, 200 feet from a broken plane. He makes his way toward the wreck where he stirs the few survivors into action and eases a dying man’s passing. Ottway’s special connection with death is undeniable. He knows things.
Before long, the survivors are attacked by wolves who begin picking them off one by one. Ottway explains that wolves will kill any intruder within 30 miles of their den. Surmising they have crashed within that boundary, the men leave their plane on the open tundra and make for shelter in the forest. Over the course of their perilous journey, this band of fellows increasingly resemble the wolf pack that stalks them.
Along with the wolves, the relentless, cruel landscape takes a heavy toll on men who teeter on a razor’s edge of insanity or death.
Co-written by director Joe Carnahan along with Ian Mackenzie, the tale’s extraordinary circumstances are economically depicted against magnificent backdrops. The script recognizes that survival owes as much to our will, or lack of it, as it does to possessing special skills or knowledge. Placing this struggle at the heart of “The Grey,” Carnahan compels us to consider our own strengths and weaknesses – a hallmark of good filmmaking.
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