Joe Carnahan’s latest film, The Grey, is about survival, the way turn-of-the-century naturalists like Jack London and Mark Twain perceived it. Search as you may, but you won’t find any log cabins with warm fires in this outback. The diagnostic element of naturalist work is a clear attempt to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Carnahan’s film attempts just this, and nothing more. It is specific in its subject matter and harsh in its portrayal.
So what happens when we take a group of social outcasts, crash their plane in the alaskan wild, and throw in a pack of blood-thirsty wolves? A quality Liam Neeson movie, of course.
On the surface, films like The Grey may seem too stylized and formulaic. A mere look beyond the gratuitous violence and contrived computer-enhanced wolves, however, will undoubtedly provide for a more fulfilling experience. Take a look at how Carnahan photographs the environment, for example. The relentlessly frigid arctic landscape, “The Grey” as we are told, is literally a character in the film. Carnahan uses the sound of the wind in a way I have never experienced it filmically before. After elongated moments of silence, it arrives unexpected and blaring. The result is a haunting reminder that no one is safe (and if you think your insulated G2 bomber North Face parka is going to save you, then you are terribly mistaken, amigo).
Liam Neeson plays Ottwar, a John Wayne-esque Yeti of a man who knows a bit too much about wolves. Much like “The Ringo Kid,” he is introduced as a suicidal pariah and inserted into the group to function as a leader – someone who thinks linearly and decisively and does it best in the heart of the wilderness. It is his hardheaded decision-making that distinguishes him from the rest of the survivors, and only within the most pitiless regions of the wild can Ottwar transcend his troubling past and comprehend the fragility of his human existence. The desire to end his own life is replaced with the need to survive. An intriguing exchange, no doubt.
Overall, I found the film difficult to endure, but perhaps that’s Carnahan’s objective. Here we find a direct correlation between subject matter and viewer experience, because a voyage through the frosty unknown would be a challenge, would it not?
At least I can say that I survived.