The Grey (2011) – Movie Review

The Grey (2011) – Movie ReviewThe Grey, a survival thriller starring Liam Neeson, has had tongues wagging for a good few months, fostering high expectations for a gripping tale of man versus wolf and wild. Overall, however the film fails to deliver.

~spoilers~

The Grey is based on a short story, ‘Ghost Walker’ written by Ian McKenzie Jeffers.  A small plane flying from an outpost oil drilling site to Anchorage crashes in the middle of the icy never-never.  Seven men survive the crash, one of whom is professional wolf hunter, Ottway (Neeson), and are left to fend for themselves against the treachery of the winter and a pack of vicious grey wolves.  The story follows the group, picked off one by one by the wilderness or the beasts, and their internal and external struggles against their own fragility in the wild.

Filmed on location in British Columbia, The Grey has some stunning scenery shots and is for the most part a beautiful film to watch.  The icy wilds had me shivering and the cinematography works well to create a sense of total isolation in this extraordinarily inhospitable clime.  One particular scene continues to haunt – in the pitch black, a wolf’s eyes are caught in the glow of a flame, and then another and another, the rest of them invisible in the dark.  While I do have a few gripes with some poor looking wolf puppets, I’d rather a shabby puppet than a shabby digital effect any day.

Despite the accomplished visuals, The Grey simply falls short as a film. This is a real shame as it could have been and should have been a harrowing tale, but instead it is two dimensional and utterly predictable. The main source of all of its many problems is characterisation. There isn’t any.  Liam Neeson is the same old Liam Neeson as he is in everything – ‘The Grey’ is also an applicable adjective to describe the man’s ever bland on screen presence.   But even so, there are Neeson films that I can still buy him as a viable character (Taken (2008) or Unknown (2011) for instance).

The group is a total cliché – the tough leader (who really has no cause to assume the leader role beyond he know about wolves), the asshole, the token black guy, the gentle followers. I didn’t care for any of them simply because I wasn’t given the opportunity to get to know any of them either before the action or as the action developed.  The Grey might have been saved had there been more interaction with the group of men while they were still in camp. Good characterisation is, after all built on change. How can we notice a change if we don’t know who they were in the first place?
We know Ottway is or was suicidal and misses his wife – we’re lead to believe she’s left him but find out at the end she’s dead.  If this crucial point of characterisation had come into play at the beginning, maybe I would have felt a bit more sorry for him, maybe he would have had an extra dimension to his character that I could latch onto. The rest of the men are entirely one dimensional, only a brief insight into their characters in a two minute campfire chat midway through the film, and even that is completely devoid of originality.  With such weak characterisation, it’s even harder to fathom their decisions made along the way – starting with my make for the tree line in the first place?

Towards the end of the film, we get a bit of philosophical pondering about the nature of God and the inconsequence of life.  While it did prevent the film from being just another man vs. wild story, the heart of it was underdeveloped and weak.  If this theme had been developed not only might it have provided a spark of characterisation, but it might have also given the story something stronger and more meaningful to hang on.

The ending of the sole surviving Ottway and the alpha wolf was just annoying. How many viewers might have missed the split second scene after the credits? Not that it gave much away, but I interpreted it as a drawn battle. Why not put that in the movie?

Learning The Grey was sourced from a short story, I figured this was the explanation behind its complete lack of development. But as Ian McKenzie Jeffers co-wrote the script, I fail to see this as an excuse.

It’s clear what kind of movie The Grey wanted to be – think Deliverance with wolves and snow – but with such underdeveloped and formulaic characters and situations it ultimately fails to reach its own aspirations. Good thing it looks pretty, otherwise it might have been a total waste of time.

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Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.
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