(Joe Carnahan, 2012)
An adventure tale so primal and simple it could have been told with little alteration at any point over the last three centuries, The Grey finally sees Carnahan make good on the promise he displayed with the terrific Narc a decade ago.
A plane carrying some Oil Workers crashes in the wastes of Alaska and the few survivors have to contend with the elements and, worse, a hungry and aggressively territorial wolf pack as they make their way South on foot. They are led by Liam Neeson's bruised, melancholy "salaried killer", whose job was to protect the Oil Workers from the wildlife at Camp, making him the closest thing they've got to a survival expert. But the wolves and the weather start to pick them off one by one and they start to turn on one another as the chances of survival recede..
It's too seldom American cinema produces Action films which satisfy on a visceral, sensual level as thrilling entertainments, and yet offer something more substantial in addition. Carnahan's film works throughout as a thrilling adventure - almost a survival horror, in it's unblinking portrayal of the physical and psychological toll the experience has on its band of survivors - yet it also stands as a sober, serious consideration of mortality and how we process and regard it. The group of crash survivors are a well-drawn collection of characters, finely acted by a macho cast, each allowed a few grace beats in the face of their own death. The conflicts and bonds between them are given a strong, believable dynamic from the start.
The crash scene is terrific: simultaneously frightening in it's bewildering maelstrom of tumbling sensation and thrilling; and the mens reaction to that horror, their stunned shock and grief, echoes through the first half of the film. Only their horrified awareness of the reality of the threat offered by the wolves shocks them out of that state. Neeson's character begins the film in his own grief; suicidal and intoning a noirishly downbeat narration of despair to a beloved and lost wife we see in flashback, and his leadership is an abject failure, since their numbers dwindle right from the start.
The wolves - heard more than seen, and usually only glimpsed as dark shadows in the trees and snow or howling snapping teeth and claws - seem as much a symbolic, existential threat as a physical one, and their relentless pursuit forces these men to reveal their vulnerabilities and fears. This is what makes The Grey surprisingly moving. The mens humanity is revealed in the moments before they die, making their fates - some awful, some almost noble - seem all the more tragic. The often long dialogue scenes where they discuss life, love, death and God are borne along on a sort of hard-bitten poetry; the authentic wisdom and repressed emotion of working class men opening up to one another.
Of course, this is still an action film and Carnahan gets all of the set-pieces just right. The wilderness itself is a vividly rugged presence, the men struggling even to walk across stretches of it, and each encounter with the wolves is disturbingly elemental (the highlight is a scene where multiple pairs of eyes appear glinting in the darkness). The photography, by Masanobu Takayanagi, is a grainy symphony of smudgy earth colours and off-white skylines, the script perfectly judged and paced. And Neeson is a fine lead for this sort of material, effortlessly convincing at the physical stuff but also soulful and Intelligent enough to carry the dramatic scenes.
But Carnahan is the star here, concocting a film that works brilliantly as a genre piece without sacrificing any emotion or intelligence.