(Very mild spoilers included.)Yes, I went into seeing The Grey (2012) with the sincere hope that Liam Neeson would be eaten by a wolf. Too often, filmmakers feel the need to make man's struggle against nature – weather, terrain, and animals – one that has a happy ending and makes clear that civilization is supreme. I am of the opinion that the ending should be in question when going in, and that nature should remain something to be feared. There is a reason we live indoors and light the night.
The last wolf-eats-man movie I saw, Frozen (2010), was a disappointment. Not so much because the wolves didn't look good or get to eat people, but because there were just so many problems with the story. Add to that the problems with trying to find incredibly stupid characters sympathetic. There is something entirely different with people who put themselves in position to either freeze to death or be eaten by wolves and those who are thrust into that situation through no fault of their own. And that is something that The Grey gets right.
There are several things the movie doesn't quite get right. Director Joe Carnahan – not known for subtlety – tries to infuse Terrence Malick-esque trippiness in oddly placed dream sequences. Ottway (Neeson) serves as an unreliable narrator with his voice overs, and those don't add much to the overall story. The pacing is much slower than I would have expected, and Carnahan chooses to linger over shots far longer than necessary when trying to convey the sense of wilderness and isolation in remote Alaska. Most strikingly, the roughnecks and workers at the remote oil drilling station seem to come out of the 1970s in their make-up and backgrounds and personal histories. The audience isn't given much information about these men other than they likely have little in the civilized world for which to live.
Still, these few non-successes could not overcome the things Carnahan and writer Ian MacKenzie Jeffers got right. The film looks great, including the mostly animatronic wolves, but really shines where it captures the desolation of the area where the plane crash occurs and the loneliness of the drilling station. Sure, Joe Anderson (as Flannery) feels like he is aping his role in The Crazies (2010) and Frank Grillo (as Diaz) spends a lot of time overacting, but the cast is solid and most give convincing performances. The Grey, like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), does not shy away from an all-male cast and fights for dominance. However, The Grey has a decidedly more modern feel with the machismo largely dialed down to believable levels.
The action is not overwhelming and is usually on point. There is a death amongst the survivors that feels like a cheat because of when it occurs, and it breaks the momentum. That may not be a bad thing, but it did distract me a little. For it being a wolf-eats-man movie, it is surprisingly light on gore (at least on how I gauge gore). It is more introspective than I expected, but for all that thought these guys couldn't figure out to attack their knives – each has one – to wooden shafts to make spears. Because spears would have been a pretty effective weapon against the wolves. There is a lot of history to back that up.
At any rate, The Grey is a solid film. It isn't feel good or cheery. The leader does not always know best. It captures a sense of verisimilitude that too many movies avoid in an effort to please the audience. When it ended, a gentleman sitting to my left exclaimed that he felt cheated and wanted his money back. Most likely, he was looking for a more conventional story with an ending that reaffirmed the belief that striving to survive is all it takes to best the wild. The Grey is thankfully not that simplistic.