Launched in December of 2011, we think The Grey is the very best of Liam Neeson’s action pants type films.
Directed by Joe Carnahan, it offers a quite brutal survival romp with existential dread and lots and lots of snow. And wolves.
The Grey: A Film With Liam Neeson (and snow)
Okay, we’ve covered similar survival films before, such as All is Lost and Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains.
The Grey is more knowingly exaggerated as a viewing experience.
That’s through its depiction of wolves, who come across as bloodthirsty lunatics in a Hollywoodised type of way.
We can kind of forgive The Grey this exaggeration as it’s done to create an exciting film with a central point about existentialism.
And its philosophical edge is complemented by strong characterisation, helping it stand out above more mindless action stuff.
The plot involves John Ottway (Neeson), who’s a marksman hired by an oil company in Alaska. It’s his job to shoot any grey wolves that attack drillers.
We find Ottway in a depressive fit, on the verge of suicide, as he finds his existence utterly pointless.
Soon after, during a flight with some colleagues, there’s a fateful crash and they’re stranded out in the Alaskan wilderness.
What follows is a brutal tale of survival, with the men battling the freezing temperatures and a wolf pack whose territory they’ve inadvertently invaded.
Where The Grey differs from many survival films is there’s no real sense of hope for the characters. Death seems inevitable.
In fact, the entire film seems to be about the need to accept death due to this.
Whereas we’re taught to battle on and persevere by society, the individuals come to realise their situation doesn’t warrant that.
For example, one character, John (Frank Grillo), eventually finds the battle to survive more of an ordeal than embracing his end.
Ironically, it’s the suicidal Ottway who battles on in an attempt to make something of his situation. Even as his colleagues drop one by one.
Whilst personal revelations about his life (a wife dying from a terminal illness) help us understand his state of mind.
Now, watching the film we thought it was excellent (with some issues aside). Out of all the action roles Neeson has taken (pun intended), this was by far the best choice and it’s something of a gem.
In a dark, bleak, and barren kind of way. Uplifting the film is not. A harsh reality check for all of us? Yes, there’s that. Although not everyone is as welcoming of this check-in from Death.
Some critics were more more hesitant about the film’s qualities.
The ones who didn’t like it focus on The Grey’s now famous ending, the plot’s pursuit of an atheistic agenda, and relying on “pretentious” philosophising.
That’s their opinion and we welcome that. But we don’t think the film’s themes are rammed down your face overly so, in fact we’d say director Carnahan manages to balance everything rather well.
Ultimately, we see The Grey and think of Nic Cage’s Pig from 2021. They pursue underlying grief and the arrival of death, or solitude, and do so in a realistic way.
And there’s cult classic Ravenous (1999), which follows a similar character arc for its tortured central character.
So, yes, such films won’t sit comfortably for everyone.
But if you want a full on assault of harsh reality, handled in a manner that conveys the acceptance of dwindling life (rather than the fear of it), then The Grey will suit you well.
The Grey’s Production
The Grey was a minor hit from its $25 million budget, earning back $81.2 million.
It was shot in early 2011 over 40 days. The location was in Vancouver, making it a difficult production thanks to the freezing temperatures.
Neeson’s wife (Natasha Richardson) actually died in 2009 aged only 45. She struck her head in a skiing accident in Quebec.
After this, Neeson seemed to take on many more serious roles with him grappling with existential quandaries.
And he has taken on a lot of these action roles (such as the Taken series), in a way we can only presume to use it as an outlet for his grief (just our theory).
But the director Carnahan did urge Neeson to channel his grief with his performance as a cathartic exercise.
What Wolves Are Really Like
Largely thanks to cinema, and inaccurate media representation, your average person believes wolves to be incredibly dangerous and must be avoided at all costs.
Wolf attacks do happen. But most recorded cases show it’s due to the animal suffering from rabies.
And cases are rare. This is in part as there are only around 250,000 wolves in the world (based on a 2018 survey).
Due to the activities of humans, they were becoming an endangered species for much of the 20th century. But conservation efforts have helped to stock up their numbers.
And wolves are highly intelligent and lead complex social lives.
As for what happens if you bump into a wolf, British woodsman and TV presenter Ray Mears has these considerations for you (from the 10:25 minute mark).
So, there you go. The next time you see a wolf when you’re out and about, there’s no need to panic!
Just doff your cap in respect and go off to howl at the Moon or something.