Dancers with Wolves
Carpers have noted that, maligned victims of bad press and bogey and fairy stories, “North American gray wolves (C. lupus) have not been known to attack humans without provocation.” However, The Grey is a fiction movie, and expert Ottway (Liam Neeson) does point out that the half-dozen survivors have intruded somewhere near their den -- though “near” is a stretch given the geography in the hundred-seventeen minutes -- and in final frames into that open-air den (usually in caves or burrows).
Director Joe Carnahan coproduced and cowrote with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from the latter’s story “Ghost Walker.” That “ghost” is the least realistic aspect, the black pack leader larger and somewhat “other” (among generally poor animatronics) and seeming to come back after that alpha male (or possibly an outcast omega) has been killed once, decapitated, spitted and roasted.
Ottway’s story is the only one envisioned in flashbacks, to his towheaded five-year-old childhood (Johathan Bitonti, with his father James as the hero’s poetry-loving father) and the wife (Anne Openshaw) whose secret is reserved for late revelation. The others’ talk turns up bits of their lives -- and their given names -- though visual images are only in wallet photos.
They are oilrig workers in the forty-ninth state, the Last Frontier of Alaska (filming was in British Columbia) and whiteout, whipped by wind and snow under leaden skies, with skeletal trees and distant mountains black silhouettes. A superbly realized plane crash to rival that of Alive strands them in the middle of nowhere. The employer caring little about them is a poor film excuse for the fact that, in this age of GPS devices and such, they are not only lost themselves but also to the outside world.
Ottway’s job had been to protect crews by sharpshooting marauding animals, in particular wolves. He had come to the brink of turning the rifle on himself as well, a suicide connected to the woman “I know I can’t get back” and her black-ink letter. Aloof from the hard-drinking, -brawling and –whoring companions, unfriendly to flight neighbor Todd Flannery (Joe Anderson), his quiet assured manliness and wilderness skills make him headman following the accident, though he must physically best rebellious neck-tattooed ex-jailbird John Diaz (Frank Grillo) to unite them.
The living first tend to the dying in the tattered fuselage. The flight attendant (Lani Galera) not even noted among the dead, the story is spared the feisty and/or brilliant scientist female shoehorned into many films. They recoil at cannibalism, which sensational resort of the Uruguayan rugby team in Alive is gallows-humorously alluded to.
With few supplies and little hope, buffeted by extreme weather and attacked by wolves whose hokey yellow eyes dot the darkness, they bury the dead whose wallets they gather for identification, and stumble off in the most likely direction.
True to this genre, one by one stragglers and the weak get picked off and apart by the grey carnivores in the grey landscape. Also in the tradition, the six bond and reveal themselves, though for one of those rare times such is not done to death. If not for the situation and enforced companionship, these private outside lives would have remained individual secrets among these roughnecks whose four-letter vocabulary is realistic and not, as often happens, forced for cool or shock effect.
African-American Burke (Nonso Anozie) has a little girl somewhere; bespectacled Talget (Dermot Mulroney) is God-fearing and also has a daughter (Ella Kosor), while Peter Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) is of a philosophical bent and Diaz nihilistic. Confronted with the ultimate, men find comfort in thoughts of children and women.
Ottway addresses and dismisses an impassive Almighty but musters the will to overcome loss and suicidal despair. “Don’t be afraid,” his wife repeats, while his father’s framed four-line poem urges him to enter the fray, to live and die in the act.
The Grey could do without the obvious insistent pseudo-philosophizing. But, out of Jack London or Robert Service crowd-pleasers, the stripped core story is a good watch: man against the elements and against himself -- primordial antagonists without and within, Mother Nature and human nature.
(Released by Open Road Films and rated "R" for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive languages.)