Difficult it is to convince audiences that the hunt between predator and prey has a layer of respect to it, The Grey tries anyway. As Liam Neeson strokes the wolf he just shot, a teary-eyed Irishman pays his respects through vague narration and some contemplative scenes. Most of the contemplation to be found in The Grey is based on the possibilities of being hounded by wolves and forced to fight them to the death. It is a small-scale disaster piece that relies more on the destruction of man fighting man than it does on the implication of wolves ripping out throats and actively attacking. The roles of predator and prey are not switched, necessarily, because that implies either are going to give up the fight.
As The Grey is keen to showcase, neither are best suited for the role of prey. A lot of the early scenes for The Grey will prey on the ordinary fears many hold of being thrown out of the sky while riding in a plane. That very real fear sets up the more unlikely terrors of being caught out by a pack of hungry wolves in the middle of nowhere. Neeson is the naturally steady hand in those moments. The action hero mentality brings him calm in disaster and a notion of what to do next as the wolves circle and the plane shows no signs of moving, especially now that it is in several pieces strewn across the middle of nowhere. An icy tundra gives director Joe Carnahan little to play with visually, but some smart lighting and effective use of shadows and extreme close-ups in the imminent moments of disaster give an intimacy that is necessary to developing this band of survivors.
Carnahan toys with the gang of the living as best he can. It feels similar to The Poseidon Adventure or the many other survival films that take a group of nobodies and throw them into something terrifying. A natural leader, the at-odds support and a gaggle of characters set to be built up and killed off to explore the philosophy hanging over the survivalist route. Frank Grillo and philosophy are not familiar bedfellows, but The Grey tries to include him and the likes of Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts as best they can. The results are surprisingly successful.
While it shouldn’t be at all startling to see Neeson in this feature, it is still surprising to note that this is the sort of film he has now been making for well over a decade. He still receives the same production value, the same top-billing, but the quality has dispersed. The Ice Road and The Marksman are part of the same scope and ideas that The Grey comes from. What went wrong, then, is fully unknowable. But The Grey adapts to a handful of events rather immediately. Philosophical implications are heavy but never quite fully formed beyond dispassionate throwaway dialogue and underlining tones. Neeson’s performance is a great stop-gap between the action-packed survivalism and the natural philosophy that can cut close to home in these situations that, while completely terrifying, are possible.