Harrowing existential survivalist thriller The Grey is available on Blu-ray this week from Universal, featuring Liam Neeson as a grieving, suicidal bounty hunter, forced to help a motley crew of plane crash survivors navigate the Alaskan wilderness while being vengefully stalked by a pack of roving, bloodthirsty wolves. The film’s minimalist premise suffers marginally from strained suspension of disbelief, but its visceral intensity and melancholic atmosphere make it gritty and absorbing nonetheless.
After running afoul of unexpectedly punishing weather conditions that rend their tiny charter plane to pieces, a small group of oil drillers find themselves stranded in the Alaskan wilderness without weapons or navigational equipment, and with only limited basic supplies. Doubtful about the prospect of being rescued, they embark on a desperate trek through the frozen drifts, hoping to accidentally encounter civilization before they starve or freeze to death. Ottway (Neeson), a poacher getting paid under the table by the drilling company to stave off encroaching wolf packs, finds his skill set in special demand as the group find themselves stalked and attacked with mounting aggression by an ominous pack of enormous, demonic-looking black wolves. With their numbers dwindling and no hope of salvation in sight, the remaining survivors are forced into a series of increasingly bloody and brutal confrontations with the wolf pack, as well as with the spectre of their own looming, inevitable mortality.
The story has a few intrinsic plot holes that nag at the subconscious if you consider them too hard (wolves for example, despite what Liam Neeson says, are not “man-eaters” in real life, although they will occasionally attack humans if they perceive them as a threat). All that is incidental, though, since The Grey’s priority is not to tell a believable survival story, but to tell an allegorical story about the inevitability of death and the human need to find solace and meaning in a brutal and finite universe. The harrowing action sequences and oppressive overall environment mesh perfectly with the movie’s bleak and existential tone, coalescing into a stark and intense parable about the tenuous barrier that separates life and death.
Universal’s Blu-ray includes commentary by director Joe Carnahan and sundry crew members, plus a solid reel of deleted scenes, including a really good one where Liam Neeson meets a polar bear that I sort of wish hadn’t been excised. Even without a cuddly and benevolent counterpoint to its drooling, Neverending Story-esque wolf demons, The Grey is a solid action suspense construction with a stronger than average emotional core, simultaneously thrilling, poignant, and sad.