The Grey

I loved this film so much. I winced, flinched, tensed, gritted my teeth, and laughed aloud. It has been a long time since I’ve been so transported. The Grey owes its excellence to phenomenal production design, extraordinary cinematography, and outstanding acting.

I’m nearly without words. I have a few to say, however. But first, a preview:

And now some deets:

Released on January 27, 2012

Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on Jeffers’ short story ‘Ghost Walker’)

Directed by Joe Carnahan

Starring Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, and Frank Grillo

*     *     *     *

Guess what? Bradley Cooper was originally cast in the lead role of Ottway, played by Liam Neeson. I thank the sun, moon, stars, and all the Valkryie that Mr. Neeson got the part instead. This would have been a far different film if it weren’t for Liam Neeson.


The Grey starts with a voiceover from Ottway (Neeson). He’s working in the unbelievably harsh conditions of the slopes of Alaska’s oil fields. He’s good with a rifle so he protects the men who work outside from the aggressive wolves of the area. The voiceover tells us that his life is difficult and we learn that his wife is gone and that he knows he won’t get her back.

It turns out the voiceover is actually the text of a letter he’s writing.

It also turns out that Ottway is deeply depressed, to the point that he is not interested in life any more. He boards a plane with a bunch of other men, presumably for a break in Anchorage, and the plane goes down.

This group of men gravitates to Ottway’s leadership, mainly because he seems to be the oldest, has a clear head, and knows about wolves, which immediately begin to threaten them. It seems that the wolves might have a den nearby and they see the survivors as invaders.

The men, with varying dynamics involved, opt to head for a forest they can barely make out in the distance, hoping that they will be more sheltered from the elements and that they can make a stand against the wolves. And then perhaps make their way south towards civilization.

Smart, relentless wolves.. well… dog them every step of the way. The men fall, one by one.

The survivors journey steadily southward, trying to get away from the wolves and finding ingenious ways to make progress. Ottway keeps them moving, and we get to see flashbacks of him as a boy with his father and more flashbacks of him with his wife, whom he clearly still loves. Watch for the reveal about her. It is gentle and effective.


The plain crash is phenomenally intense. In fact, it is the single most terrifying thing I’ve seen on film. The sound effects, the camera angles, the quick cuts– they combine to make you (or at least me) tense up and gasp. Ottway along with 6 or 7 other men survive. These men are all fully realized, very deeply felt and acted, characters. They talk like men from the north slope. They are grizzled, bearded, and each is very unique. I’ve met men like this who work on the slope up in Alaska, and the characters in Ottway’s band of survivors ring very true.

Back to the excellent sound work on The Grey. The wolves’ growls are felt and are visceral. Their movement is ghostly and vicious. Ottway gets in a fistfight with one and it is all confusion, snarls, and pain.

Liam Neeson is Chuck Norris without the moves and Jack Bauer without the guns and technology. But he can act, and boy does he turn in a great performance here. You come to realize that Ottway’s not enthused about life, but when the lives of others are in his hands, he has something to motivate him– something to fight for. He is desperate to keep them alive.

Watch him with Burke. Watch him with Hendrick. Desperate.

The cinematography makes the land a character in and of itself. The land is harsh and totally relentless. Even snowless rocks are horrible. But the land is also incredibly beautiful and provides resources for the men.

Dallas Roberts nails his role as Hendrick, a man who seems out of place in this group of roughnecks. He’s tough, but seems younger and still has a positive attitude and a life he cares about. Dermot Mulroney is unrecognizable, which is good. He plays Talget, who seems particularly smart, but has a fatal flaw which I shall not reveal.

This is an intense film. At one point, I realized I was clenching my arm rests and pushing my feet against the wall in front of me. Hard. If you have a heart condition, I don’t think you should see this movie. People die in The Grey, sometimes very messily. But interestingly the movie has some things to say about death and what happens when death comes knocking.

What’s more, I don’t use profanity at all, for religious reasons, but these men sure do. That said, it’s very much a dialectal thing– so the f-bombs etc all blend into a very organic and authentic dialogue that reveals excellent chemistry. I loved the dynamics of the group and I loved that cliches were not present.

I really recommend this astonishingly effective film. The ending does not satisfy like most Hollywood fare, in that it’s not tied up neatly. It leaves you thinking. Also, if you stay to the end of the credits for one final scene, that won’t tie up the end either.

Content warnings: Lots of profanity, lots of blood, lots of violence. Some challenging religious undertones.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5           Overall: 4.75

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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