Beware the wolf pack. No, it's not another sequel to the The Hangover, but something almost as scary. Action-horror hybrid The Grey pits man (Liam Neeson) versus wild (bloodthirsty wolves) in a subarctic death match.
Director and co-screenwriter Joe Carnahan wastes no time in establishing his foul-mouthed characters as their own breed of animal, "men unfit for mankind." They are oil-pipeline grunts, whose flight to Anchorage crashes far off the beaten path. Immediate concerns are starvation and freezing, until a pack of wolves make it known that the men have encroached on marked territory.
On the face of it, The Grey has the well-worn (and wearing) structure of a slasher flick, as the plane-crash survivors get picked off, one by one, by the local fauna. But The Grey—based on co-screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' short story "Ghost Walker"—keeps producing thematic rabbits out of its hat that add existential dread to the proceedings. For starters, Neeson's John Ottway is (barely) living with crippling grief, and his new crisis gives him a reason to fight for life instead of longing for death.
Thankfully, The Grey is exponentially better than the last teaming of Carnahan and Neeson: this film's relatively minimalist approach seems like some kind of penance for the excesses of The A-Team. Filmed under grueling conditions and in a spartan palette (the title reflects the film's look as well as its ambiguous philosophical space), The Grey works hard to earn a realistic tone, the better to scare you with.
Neeson takes the film a long way toward that end with a typically grave and grounded performance, but among the film's pleasant surprises is its reliance on a not-especially recognizable ensemble cast. Some of the names or faces (Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Dallas Roberts) may ring a bell, though they are partly obscured by flurries of snow and layers of clothing. The breakout character arguably belongs to Frank Grillo, hardly a household name; his mercurial jerk makes for a relatable, even tragic character.
Forced by circumstance, the salty, abrasive group stumbles into male bonding as well as quarrels over the best plan of survival, meanings of life or lack thereof, or nothing at all, the last preferable to letting in fear (with a wink, Carnahan allows Anderson's character to allude to cinematic forebears Grizzly Man and Alive). Human limits are tested by wilderness survival, but the greater tension may be in the questions of what makes a life still worth living and when it's time to pack it in. Though it does thrill with intense, close-cropped action photography, swift editing, and vivid sound design, The Grey makes as much of an impression by being unexpectedly emotional.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]