A survival horror/thriller with arthouse pretensions, The Grey marks writer-director Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces, Narc) return to smaller-budgeted, lean, economical filmmaking after a semi-disastrous foray into big-budget, tentpole filmmaking (The A-Team).

Where The A-Team substituted CG-spectacle for traditional, action-genre filmmaking, The Grey reverses the order, focusing on the eternal, primal struggle between Man (Liam Neeson) and Nature (hungry, territorial wolves) in the wilds of Alaska after an airplane transporting two or three dozen oil workers from an unspecified field back to Anchorage goes down in a remote area (i.e., everything and anything in Alaska outside major cities and minor towns).

When we first meet Neeson’s character, John Ottway, a sniper and wolf-killer by choice and trade, he’s contemplating suicide. He’s also incessantly droning on, via ubiquitous voiceover, about the hard men with hard lives who work the oil fields and a certain phrase, “Live or die on this day,” that becomes his mantra post-crash. In impressionistic flashbacks, we’re meant to gather that Ottway’s a man suffering for his sins or rather suffering for the loss of his unnamed wife. Something, however, pulls him back from the brink of self-imposed oblivion and Ottway decides to join the flight back to Anchorage, empty sniper’s rifle carried nonchalantly over his shoulder.

A lively, profanity-laced exchange of banter between and among several oil field workers doesn’t last long before the plane suffers some kind of electrical mishap and goes down. Ottway survives, but most of the passengers and the entire flight crew, including the flight attendants, don’t. The survivors, numbering a not-so-lucky seven, include Ottway, John Diaz (Frank Grillo), Spectacles (Dermot Mulroney), Flannery (Joe Anderson), Burke (Nonso Anozie), Henryk (Dallas Roberts), Hernandez (Ben Bray), and Other Nameless Guy (James Badge Dale). After Ottway proves himself adept at guiding a dying man to his unjust reward (one of The Grey’s most powerful, affecting scenes, it should be added), Ottway takes charge of the group, with only Diaz as the occasional objector and sporadic antagonist.

With rescue incredibly unlikely, Ottway, a survivalist by training and experience (in addition to the wolf-sniping thing, of course), thinks it best if the survivors leave the relative safety of the fuselage for the seemingly distant treeline where, if they trek South, the survivors just might make it back to civilization. Ottway and the others quickly discover, however, that the elements or a lack of food or heat are the least of the survivors’ problems: Hungry, territorial wolves who see the humans as interlopers and threats to be eliminated. With snowstorms, freezing cold, and the ever-ubiquitous wolves (a combo, apparently, of real wolves or their canine cousins, CG, and animatronics, sometimes convincing, sometimes not), picking off the men one by one. How many (if any) survive to the end credits won’t be revealed here, but it’s safe to say Ottway makes to the final reel and a possibly final confrontation with the wolf pack (no, not the Twilight Wolf Pack, but an actual one).

With the exception of one or two over-edited scenes, Carnahan avoids reminding moviegoers of his presence behind the camera. Almost everything is shot and edited for maximum impact and, just as importantly, for intelligibility. It’s only when Carnahan, working from a screenplay co-written with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (from Jeffers short story, “Ghost Walker”), indulges his inner arthouse director. Whether it’s Ottway’s pseudo-philosophical voiceover narration (mostly dropped after the first ten or fifteen minutes), or the flashbacks to Ottway’s semi-idyllic, golden-hued childhood, not to mention the oneiric moments he gives several of the vaguely defined men before they expire, Carnahan veers into pretension and faux-profundity. When he doesn’t, however, The Grey’s an effective, straightforward, suspenseful, sweaty palm-inducing survival horror-thriller and a better example of the genre.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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